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Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Country

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NewSouth Books
978-1-58838-218-4
$23.95 hardcover
5 ½ x 8 ½  
221 pages
Bailey White, foreword
Published in 2008

For over a decade, syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson has been spending several months a year in Southwest Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun Country. Unlike many other writers who have parachuted into the swampy paradise for a few days or weeks, Rheta fell in love with the place, bought a second home, and set in planting doomed azaleas and deep roots. She has found an assortment of beautiful people in a homely little town called Henderson, right on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp.

These days, much is labeled Cajun that is not, and the popularity of the unique culture’s food, songs, and dance has been a mixed blessing. The revival of French Louisiana’s traditional music and cuisine often has been cheapened by counterfeits. Confused pilgrims sometimes look to New Orleans for a sampler platter of all things Cajun. Close, but no cigar.

Poor Man’s Provence helps define what’s what through lively characters and stories. The book is both personal odyssey and good reporting, travelogue and memoir, funny and frank. This beguiling place is as exotic as it gets without a passport.

As NPR commentator Bailey White observes in her foreword, “Both Rheta’s readers and the people she writes about will be comfortable, well fed, highly entertained, and happy they came to poor man’s Provence.”

Praise:

“According to newspaper columnist Johnson, life in Cajun Country, deep in the heart of Southeast Louisiana, is ‘the opposite of live and let live; it's more like mind my business and I'll mind yours.’ In this largely winning read, Johnson does exactly that with the residents of her adopted, beloved Bayou home, Henderson, La. Her distinct perspective, that of an accepted neighbor who's still considered an outsider, drives this observational memoir. Travel readers will enjoy chucklesome details—a town with about five surnames, Henderson's phone book ‘is the only one . . . I know of to use nicknames in its listings’ . . . readers will find a wonderful, personal look into a Cajun community.” —Publishers Weekly
“Talk about love at first sight. After chasing stories all over America for three decades, syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson was caught up short when she fell for a gawky little one-room boat for sale in the vast Atchafalaya Swamp of Louisiana. She heard a Cajun voice say, ‘You need dat boat, you,’ and when she bought it her life was transformed. This is her love song to the Cajun Nation.” —Paul Hemphill, author of Hank Williams and Leaving Birmingham
“For everyone who watched Passion Fish the second time for the music and scenery, Johnson has invited us to a real feast—a chronicle from inside the spicy sweet heart of Cajun country. Some of the dance halls open and the party begins by eight a.m., and at lunch, the good times pass on across the road to another hall. There aren’t too many rules against joy; don’t stand on the table is one, and don’t swallow the plastic baby in the King Cake. Life is a party, she tells us—bring your own excuse. The only bad thing about this wonderful memoir is that it is sure to bring tourists.” —Mary Hood, author of Familiar Heat and And Venus is Blue
Poor Man’s Provence is what results when one beloved national treasure decides to write about another beloved national treasure, Louisiana’s Cajuns. Johnson gives us an insider tour of an outsider culture, and it’s as dead-on as Levi-Strauss and as funny as Mark Twain. As the Cajuns would put it, ‘You need dis book, you.’” —Cynthia Shearer, author of The Celestial Jukebox: A Novel
“In Poor Man’s Provence, Rheta Grimsley Johnson settles in Henderson, Louisiana, to highlight the lives of ordinary people about the business of simply living. Her magic pen turns French-Cajun names into song; and, as always, Johnson pays tribute to undiscovered regional artists at moments of self-discovery—who needs Hollywood when you have Henderson? Poor Man’s Provenceis a generous book, about a generous people, by and about a generous writer. But don’t tell her I said so. If you read only one book this year, this should be it.” —Janice Daugharty, author of Just Doll