If you have not read any of Kate Chopin's books, make a point to do so. Dover carries a number of them, or you can read them for free online or on an electronic reader from Project Gutenberg. Her stories, recollections of her years in Louisiana during the late 1800s portray the nitty-gritty of Creole life with brutal honesty and not without scathing satire. They contain the whole of society during that period and how people interacted with one another: blacks and whites, men and women, wealthy and poor, and upright to scurrilous, all without judgment, but just relating events and leaving it up to the reader to choose sides. Expect to get involved with these characters. They will shock you, make you chuckle, or bring tears to your eyes. Many of these tales send tingles up your spine because they evoke buried truths and emotions, and lay them bare before the reader. And some of them will probably stretch you beyond your comfort zone. Their straightforwardness makes one wonder if Chopin intended these reactions, or was simply relating life as she perceived it. No matter what, this is a collection well worth reading.
The book consists of 24 stories. The first 11 are from a collection published in 1894 called Bayou Folk. They take place in Natchitoches Parish where the Chopins made their home for a number of years, and the same characters make their appearances throughout many of the stories. The next 10 are from a collection published in 1897 called A Night in Acadie, and takes place in New Orleans, where the Chopins also lived for a while. The last three stories, which includes Lilacs, were not published in any collection. These stories are all so fascinating, it was difficult to choose which to review!
From Bayou Folk
In The Return of Alcibiade, Fred Bartner is traveling from New Orleans when the wheel of his buggy goes bad. His Negro boy who is driving suggests stopping at Monsieur Jean Baptiste Plochel's place because he has the best blacksmith. But the elderly man is a bit off in the head, ever since his son went to war and promised to return for Christmas dinner. He never returned, and Jean Baptiste has been waiting all these years, growing old and senile. When he sees Mr. Barter, he thinks it is Alcibiade coming home for Christmas. Esmée, his loving granddaughter convinces Mr. Bartner to go along with him:
"Mr. Bartna" answered Esmée, daintily holding a rosebud up to her pretty nose, "W'en I awoke this morning an' said my prayers, I prayed to the good God that He would give one happy Christmas day to my gran'father. He has answered my prayer; an' He does not sen' his gif's incomplete. He will provide".
For Marse Chouchoute tells of the love a young Negro boy, Wash, feels for the widow Madame Verchette and her son Marse Chouchoute. When the son lands a job with the postal service delivering mail to the trains, Wash is almost more excited than Chouchoute. But one day, Chouchoute behaves irresponsibly, stopping at a dance, and missing the train. When he realizes his folly, he also realizes his horse and the bag of mail is gone, too. Wash has looked out for his friend, but now lies nearly dead. . .
From A Night in Acadie
Athénaïse has left her new husband to visit her family, but when she doesn't return, he realizes something is wrong. Then he gets word that she doesn't plan to return. Why? Her husband loves her, treats her well, and has the means to support her, but she just doesn't want to be married. Her husband, Cazeau, has sadly resolved to make the best of it, but Athénaïse's brother, Montéclin, who doesn't like Cazeau, helps her run away. He arranges an apartment for her in New Orleans where she can remain in hiding. But while she is there, her freedom and isolation allow her to finally know herself. This is a tender and sweet story, and also the longest in the book.
A Dresden Lady in Dixie will make you chuckle. Madame Valtour suddenly notices that her Dresden china doll is missing from the mantle-piece. It is precious to her because the baby she once loved, now gone forever, used to hold and kiss it. Out of desperation, she visits the Bedout's cabin, where young (white) Agapie lives. Agapie, who loves the Valtours, was the last one to be in the room when she delivered some eggs, and to her mother's shock, the doll is found in her box of toys. Agapie swears she didn't take it, and her mother breaks into sobs, but Madame Valtour bans her from their house.
Agapie's heart is broken, and she confides in her friend the old black, Pa-Jeff. Pa-Jeff, who is in his nineties, thinks it over, then goes to the Valtour's to make a "confession" of theft. But he creates an hysterically funny story 'bout de battle goin' on in him between Satan and De Sperrit, and Satan won, but now he confessin' so De Sperrit, he win dat fight.
After that, he repeats the story so many times, it is said he actually starts to believe it's true.
Lilacs is a bittersweet story of the power of fragrance. Every year when the lilacs bloom, Adrienne is suddenly seized with the compulsion to return to the convent that was once her home. The nuns watch and wait with glee, anticipating the yearly arrival of one they love so dearly. She spends two weeks there, then off she goes again. But the nuns know she will return when the lilacs bloom next spring. The next year, however, something terrible, heartbreaking happens.
Those who have suffered the hatefulness of the Catholic Church will find this story particularly poignant.
This is just a brief sampling of the wonderful stories in this collection. Highly recommended reading!
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