Book Highlights Quirks of Louisiana Cajun Swamp Town Just beyond the Mississippi River and over by the Atchafalaya swamp is where you'll find Henderson, La. Longtime Southern newspaper columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson's book, Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana, chronicles her love affair with the town.
NPR logo

Book Highlights Quirks Of La. Cajun Swamp Town

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Book Highlights Quirks Of La. Cajun Swamp Town

Book Highlights Quirks Of La. Cajun Swamp Town

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So where else does a frazzled journalist find solace? Columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson landed in the tiny town of Henderson, Louisiana, gateway to the Atchafalaya River Basin. She chronicles her love affair in a new book, "Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana."

NPR's Debbie Elliott took a tour with her.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: It started with an unwanted assignment to go on a wild boar hunt in Louisiana and write about it for the Atlanta newspaper. Rheta Grimsley Johnson finished the unpleasant task early and set out with her husband to explore the nearby Atchafalaya.

(Soundbite of marina)

Ms. RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON (Columnist): This is basin landing marina.

ELLIOTT: We're walking along a maze of boardwalks lining Henderson Swamp.

Ms. JOHNSON: Here she is.

ELLIOTT: She's pointing to one of the houseboats tucked beneath the moss-draped cypress and willow trees.

Ms. JOHNSON: We saw the boat with the two signs. One said Green Queen, the other said for sale and it began our great adventure.

ELLIOTT: Before long, they decided to make The Green Queen their second home of sorts.

(Soundbite of door)

Ms. JOHNSON: It's a shanty boat. It's not a fancy houseboat yacht kind of affair. It's one room and it's the color of an after-dinner mint. And it's got vinyl siding and faux shutters and all green.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: Very green.

ELLIOTT: Here, floating on the hydrilla-covered swamp, Johnson says she felt a curious connection.

Ms. JOHNSON: 'Cause I had seen it before in some previous life. It was something so familiar yet strange. It was as if I had been here before and left and come back.

ELLIOTT: If it was the swamp that drew her, it was the people of Henderson that kept her coming back for more than 10 years now.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, there was this unusual, almost anachronistic connection to the land that reminded me of my grandparents peanut farming in south Georgia. It was a way of life few have anymore. They prized time over money and family and friends over almost anything else. And I think they've got it right.

Ms. HELENE BOUDREAUX (Female Vocalist of the Year, Cajun French Music Association): Entre of my house. Entre to my cabin. You understand, I live in the woods, so there's nothing fancy.

ELLIOTT: We've come to meet Helene Boudreaux, a main character in the book. She's the Cajun French Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year. But folks around here know her by another title.

Ms. BOUDREAUX: Catahoula truck-driving Cajun mama.

ELLIOTT: Boudreaux is a retired long-distance truck driver turned singer/songwriter. Her latest song is an ode to the town she grew up in.

Ms. BOUDREAUX: This is my song about Catahoula, my roots. And I'm going to start it in French, then go into English.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BOUDREAUX: (Singing in French)

Papa was a sugar cane farmer. We slept four in a bed. We had cracks - we had a sharecropper house. We had cracks in our floors. We'd feed corn to the chickens under the house. When everybody would be sleeping, I'd raise the window to the bedroom - twelve, one o'clock in the morning, and I'd listen to the pansies in the woods. And, you know, I was all by myself in my own little world, you know.

(Singing) Beautiful Catahoula, it's right on the edge of that swamp. Though my trees and my branches are gone now, my roots and my heart still belong.

ELLIOTT: People from all over Acadiana come to see Boudreaux for her other calling.

Ms. BOUDREAUX: Well, they call it (unintelligible), safe healer. The Atakapa � the Indians lived here before the Acadians and the Europeans came. So these prayers were theirs and when they married into the Acadians and the Europeans, well, they passed their prayers down. The ones I have from my old aunt, that's 300 years of prayers.

ELLIOTT: She has a special chant for just about anything that ails you.

Ms. BOUDREAUX: Now, a wart prayer � for warts, for a female you say pigalit, pigalit, pigalit and tap the wart. Pigalit, pigalit, pigalit � tap the wart. And if it's a male, it's pigalee, pigalee, pigalee � tap the wart.

ELLIOTT: While "Poor Man's Provence" captures unique characters like Helene Boudreaux, it also gives an honest look at life in this working-class town, where front yards are dotted with statues of the Virgin Mary and motorboats.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson writes that Henderson is junky, unplanned, littered. And she doesn't shy away from what she calls the sadder parts of the culture � the poverty and child abuse she witnesses.

(Soundbite of houseboat)

ELLIOTT: Back on the porch of The Green Queen houseboat, Johnson peers out over the water and reads a passage from her book about evolution and the swamp.

Ms. JOHNSON: (Reading) Something begins to bubble beneath the green carpet of hydrilla, unseen proof of life. Something else, a nutria or muskrat, slithers from water to land with a beginner's grace. There's movement in the tall grass. A heron with awkward legs crashes about at the edge of the Atchafalaya. A turtle plops from a log with a satisfying splash. The snowy egret dangles from a willow limb like a bowl of unpicked cotton.

You also see the big tracks of Homo sapiens � abandoned pipelines and litter and oil streaks across the bayou's slick surface. The connection between our species and all the others is never so clear as while floating on Henderson swamp in early-morning light. We are a higher species with lowdown habits.

ELLIOTT: And all of us still have mud on our backs, she says.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.