Even as a teenager I remember thinking this book was overwrought and stupid. Let’s see how it holds up. [Spoiler alert: Not well!]
Book: Louisiana Hurricane, 1860, Kathleen Duey, 2000.
Madelaine LeBlanc is the wealthy daughter of a wealthy man in Louisiana in 1860 (which I’m sure was abundantly clear from the title), but she’s discontented because she’s Deep and Introspective. She’s at a party with all the other wealthy people in Baton Rouge, but she just can’t bring herself to dance, since she’s too worried about impending war. Oh, wait, I remember why I liked this book so much—costume porn. Madelaine’s mother is wearing a “dramatic emerald silk gown with its cream-colored collar and cuffs of velvet applique.” Oh my.
Anyway, on page 3 we get the introduction of tension between Madelaine and her mother, since her mother was a bit of a social butterfly and Madelaine is, I believe, not so much. But there’s some more costuming, Madelaine is wearing “a little beaded headdress of black velvet ribbon and gold braid…Her dress was a pretty flowered merino. Black silk ruchings graced the double hemline, and the waist had lace-covered Elizabethan sleeves.” But all these beautiful things mean nothing to her—nothing, I say!—because she is too worried about the impending war.
Smash cut to a man named Françoise Jarousseau, milking a cow. He’s busy ruminating on how lucky it is that his brothers are both married to accomplished women, so in exchange for giving them “milk and extra eggs and pecans….he was pretty sure he would never have to weave cloth or sew clothes for himself again.” Sure, Frankie, that sounds like a fair trade to me. By which I mean, not at all. Anyway, he’s all bitter because his brothers are married with children and he’s not. Apparently he’s looking for someone with his “mother’s beauty and wit,” which actually sounds a bit weird now. Then Françoise talks with his brother Antoine, and remarks how beautiful Antoine’s oldest girl is growing. The end of this section. What.
Madelaine is back at her home on the bayou and a storm is brewing. Her “house servant” (that’s a nice euphemism for slave) Celia comes in, who’s been so terrified of the storm she’s reluctant to leave to her house down in the quarters where she lives with her husband and son. Celia and Madelaine grew up together, and Madelaine thinks back on all the storms that they endured together as little girls. But it’s okay, she says, “Celia’s husband was out in the cabins, sleeping on a warm bed of corn shucks and rice straw with their little son.” If you seriously think sleeping in a feather bed in a warm house is as comfortable as a cornshuck bed in a cabin, Madelaine, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Françoise is at his house, listening to the storm, reflecting on how it’s a good thing it’s so stormy since the nightriders will stay home and Negro men can go to visit their wives on other plantations. Um. Poor whites were generally not big supporters of abolition and civil rights, but sure, whatever. Françoise thinks some more about how he wants a wife “not unlike my mother,” and this still is creeping me out.
After the storm, Celia creeps back to her own cabin and Gabriel tells her that Madelaine is going to miss her when she marries. Celia flatly refuses to believe Madelaine will get rid of her, though, and tries to convince her husband that she’ll be able to work for Madelaine forever. Her husband, Gabriel, does not particularly believe this. Shocking.
Madelaine’s father is upset over the wreck of the cane crop, and further upset when he finds out that Gabriel refused to go to work that morning. He refuses to allow the overseer to do anything more cruel than whip him, claiming that he won’t have cruelty on his plantation (because whipping is such a gentle procedure) and if you couldn’t tell already, this is going to be another one of those books where people in 1860 magically hold all the same values people today do in terms of gender relations, race relations, and economics. But it’s okay to be prejudiced against poor people, because Mr. Leblanc says “Swamp Cajuns. I hate to have them around the place,” forgetting that his in-laws were apparently “swamp Cajuns” before the LeBlancs were married.
“The Yankees up north are right about slavery….They are. No one can practice it and have a clean soul,” Madelaine thinks. How convenient for a girl raised in the lap of luxury in a house built by slave labour. But her mother insists she go to a picnic that weekend, and Madelaine freaks out that her mother doesn’t understand her.
Back at the cabin, Celia is trying to defend Madelaine to Gabriel, who keeps telling Celia that she thinks she’s special but if need be they’ll be sold off like any other common slave. I must side with Gabriel here. We also learn that Mr. LeBlanc rides with the “vigilance men,” the nightriders who patrol for runaway slaves.
Later that night LeBlanc goes out with the night riders and Madelaine paces around her room, thinking “It was wrong. Deeply and fundamentally wrong.” It’s quite a change for this girl to go in the space from wealthy girl raised in the Deep South to fervent abolitionist, but whatever. Yes, we get it, slavery is wrong, but the characterization here is terrible. LeBlanc is thinking about marrying Madelaine off, the thought of which he abhors, but frankly his thinking is pretty sound—he sees that war is coming, and he wants her to be safely married to a solid, wealthy family where she’ll be taken care of, protected, and insulated from the effects of the war, more so than he can do for her.
Françoise is still whimpering on about how much he misses his dead mom and how badly he wants a wife just like her, mixed in with some complaining about the nightriders. Madelaine is still dreamily going on about how wonderful it will be for her and Celia when Celia is free, and admiring how good at chores Celia is, and Celia is caught between means-well-but-clueless-Madelaine and her husband, who is threatening to make a run for freedom. Madelaine’s mother tells her about the young man invited to dinner there as a prospect for Madelaine, and I think we can all tell that somehow this is going to end poorly.
Françoise turns out to be one of the swamp Cajuns hired to work at the plantation, and immediately butts heads with the stablemaster, who feels threatened by the hired whites on the place. Madelaine spots Françoise while aimlessly riding around the estate, and tells him his whistling sounds like a bird in the trees. Mr. LeBlanc dashes in to prevent his daughter from speaking to someone Unworthy, and Françoise schools him on why his peach trees grow bark rot. This is how we can tell that Françoise is going to be the eventual hero—his plain-spoken truth bombs. Later on he manages to fix up a slave boy’s shoulder that has been pulled out of its socket, and Madelaine is charmed by this display of…I don’t know, common sense? Healing power?
Françoise, having spotted Madelaine, has fallen in love with her more or less immediately. By exchanging three words with her, he knows somehow that she is “more than a spoiled planter’s daughter,” although exactly how he knows this I have no idea. The magic of love, I guess. Later that week when the LeBlancs are hosting a dinner party, they spend the evening wandering around the gardens and Madelaine spots Françoise lurking along the edges of the lawn, staring at her. “The Cajun man meant her no harm, she felt sure of that…He was good-hearted, she was sure.” Uh, you’ve spoken exactly three words to him and watched him fix a kid’s shoulder, then he creepily lurked around your dinner party staring at you. This is so unhealthy on both sides.
It also turns out that Rory, the guy Madelaine’s father is inviting over to dinner, is one of the night riders who goes around lynching blacks. In case you couldn’t tell he was going to be a terribly evil person, because it’s not enough that Madelaine’s father wants to marry her off, it has to be to a monster of a human, too.
Later that week Madelaine comes riding along and spots Françoise, tells him he sounds like a bird, tells him that she loves to dance, and then randomly asks “Do you know anything about war coming?” which I think is intended to make her sound smart and intense, but comes across as her sounding vaguely incapable of understanding what a normal conversation is like. It turns out that Mr. LeBlanc yells at Madelaine for this, for associating with “commoners,” and Madelaine’s excuse is “You should her him whistling.” I would laugh at this, but I also used to be sixteen and had stupider reasons. Madelaine also bitches to her mom that Celia shouldn’t have to call her “Mistress Madelaine” because, she claims, they are friends. Madelaine’s mother figuratively bitchslaps her and tells her that she has never heard anything so stupid, and I must agree. I guess the reader is supposed to think that Madelaine is so awesome and all, but frankly she’s coming across like a condescending idiot who doesn’t realize that having Celia call her by first name will put them both in real danger. Idiot.
Later on when Celia is dressing Madelaine, she promises Celia that “Whatever happens, whatever changes, whatever tears the world apart, we will be friends.” This friendship seems to be a trifle one-sided as Celia is visibly uncomfortable with this. Rory turns up as a storm is brewing, just as down in the fields Françoise and his Cajun buddies are talking about how war is inevitable and sooner or later it’s going to fuck up everything for them, the poor people. This is true. They actually mention the Acadian Expulsion of 1755 and no major errors are made, which is kind of amazing for a book about the Civil War. Françoise gets tired of listening to them discuss stuff and goes to “walk off [his] dinner,” by which he means, creepily lurk around the LeBlanc gardens hoping to see Madelaine in the house somewhere. CREEPY. He also muses a bit on how he’s confident that while Madelaine is used to the finer things in life, she doesn’t, like, need them. “She would prefer treasures of the heart.” Again, saying quite a lot for a woman you’ve met all of TWICE.
Madelaine is busy meeting Rory while Françoise is standing outside staring through the windows at their parlor. This is CREEPY AS HELL. He’s all aggravated when Madelaine enters the parlor and talks with Rory, and I cannot get over how weird and creepy this is and why it’s supposed to be romantic. Anyway, Madelaine is fretting because a storm is rising and she knows Celia is upstairs panicking about the storm. She has a terse little discussion about it with her parents at the supper table, and Rory tries to swan in and rescue her. Madelaine sends Rory back to the dinner table, then goes to look for Celia, who has collapsed, apparently in fear, between the house and the slave quarters. But Françoise has swooped in to rescue Celia, because of course he has. He snaps at Madelaine that she’s going to ruin her “evening with [her] beau,” with a touch too much snippiness for someone who, let’s recall, has met her twice. Madelaine also randomly decides that Françoise must have mixed blood, although this is the first time that’s mentioned, so who knows anymore.
That evening, Madelaine decides that she’s more attracted to Rory, but “her heart was elsewhere.” The storm is raging outside and one of her shutter flies open and apparently these wealthy people have no damn glass in their windows because rain and wind just come blazing on in. She struggles to try to close the shutter, and what the hell—Françoise is ON HER BALCONY and he tries to force her back into her room, and when she is freaking out a bit he vaults INTO HER ROOM and wrenches her against the far wall! Then he kisses her and says “My name is Françoise Jarousseau.” He cranks the window closed and leaves. WHAT. WHAT. WHY WAS HE ON HER BALCONY. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE.
The next morning after the hurricane Madelaine wanders downstairs in her nightclothes, runs into Rory in the kitchen, and freaks out when he calls her beautiful. Then she worries for a bit about how she wanted to go riding that day and now that the plantation is devastated from the hurricane, she may not get to. Rory ends up staying for a week and working as an overseer and is incredibly cruel, but Mr. LeBlanc thinks he’s just terrific and offers him a colt.
Madelaine does end up going riding one day and runs into Françoise in the woods, where he’s lurking waiting for her. They talk and laugh and apparently Rory is there in the woods spying on them and not doing his fake-overseer job, because he’s jealous as anything and claims that he will fix this. Somehow. Not clear how. But he does talk Mr. LeBlanc into letting the Cajuns stay on another week, precisely because every day Madelaine goes riding out in the woods and Françoise meets her and they make out for a bit. Madelaine blathers on a bit about how she wants to work hard, and how she’s hated every minute of her life spent in idleness, and….I feel like she may not have thought this through 100%.
Celia tells Madelaine that she and Gabriel can’t help Madelaine and Françoise meet up any more, because Rory has cottoned on to the thing. Unfortunately Rory’s amazing plan is to light the barn on fire. First he dismisses Françoise in the middle of the day and makes him go home, to set him up as a suspect. Then he soaks a corner of it with lamp oil, lights a bag of cotton to smolder, and goes back to his room at the plantation house to “absentmindedly pace his balcony.” Unsurprisingly, he is the one to raise the alarm of the fire. He waits until the commotion to place the empty lamp oil bottles back in the storeroom, but Madelaine spots him doing it. She can’t stand to stay in there, but a hurricane is blowing up.
Like an idiot, Madelaine goes into the woods (in a hurricane! Why??? She’s going to be clocked by a falling tree limb and she deserves it!) to look for Françoise. Two paragraphs later something hits her in the back of the head. Françoise spots her in the middle of the path and carries her to one of the storehouses on the property, and they stay there while it starts to rain, confessing how much they love one another. Dude. Time and a place.
Meanwhile, Rory is storming all over the place all pissed off that Madelaine is off in the storm with Françoise somewhere, and vanishes out into the yards to look for them. Mr. LeBlanc trips and falls over a fallen tree limb and stumbles towards the granary, and they both get to the granary at about the same time to find Madelaine and Françoise there, canoodling.
Rory threatens to kill Françoise, Madelaine is shrieking on about how she loves him, and Mr. LeBlanc is miraculously convinced in about two sentences about how she and Françoise are really in love and they’re going to get married. Françoise tells Madelaine the good news—that they’re going to be able to marry—and that he asked for the freedom of Celia and Gabriel and their baby as a wedding present.
Rating: F. Ugh. This is a terrible book. This is a romance novel dressed up in historical clothing and commits all the worst sins of historical fiction. Horrible presentism—which is where people in the past display sentiments of the current day and therefore seem incredibly enlightened—in fact, one of the most presentist novels I think I’ve ever encountered. All the “good” characters are amazingly enlightened, the “bad” characters display pretty damn period-appropriate sensibilities, and instead of slavery being the core foundation of their economy, it’s horrible. Do not get me wrong—slavery is, of course, one of the greatest sins committed by mankind—but it’s pretty miserable to read a piece of historical fiction that bears no resemblance to the actual historical period.
Also the love story, which could have been redeeming, is creepy as hell. Why is it never explained why Françoise was just hanging out on Madelaine’s balcony? Why is it not creepy that he just lurks around all the time? Why is it not addressed that they apparently are desperately in love after seeing each other twice and saying one sentence? Kids, don’t do this. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, though, I’d totally read a book where they get married and Madelaine finds life in the bayou really really really hard because she can’t even dress herself without Celia helping, and Françoise finds that Madelaine is not the dream-princess and also dead-mother-substitute he’s been dreaming of. F. F book for sure.