Book Review Archives

Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana

By: Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Reviewed by: Joey Kennedy
NewSouth Books, 2008
$23.95, Hardcover

Henderson, Louisiana, is a small town by most standards. About 1,500 people make up the town’s citizenry, and that certainly isn’t many folks when viewed from the perspective of a world-traveling journalist. But Henderson has something that most big cities will never possess: a heart.

I grew up in Cajun Louisiana, and spent my formative years there. I traveled the bayous throughout the area around Thibodaux and Houma, in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. I’ve spent days on the lakes lined with cypress trees, catching perch and sac-a-lait. And if we were particularly brave, we might putter down the canals and bayous in our little Joe boat, all the way to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the two-lane highways that cut through the swamps, there’s Theriot and Dulac and Montegut and Cocodrie—all of them east of Henderson, but still beating with the same heart. It’s a strong beat, not too diminished from outside influence.

If you dare write about this area, you’d better get it right.

In her memoir, Poor Man’s Provence, veteran journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson gets it right. She finds the heart that draws her back to this quirky paradise with its every beat. Not far from Lafayette, Johnson is introduced to the kind of people who are salt of the earth despite their idiosyncratic personalities.

From her first trip, which involved covering a wild hog hunt, Johnson was hooked—and she hooks her readers with tale after tale of holidays and home cooking in paradise. She also tells us about finding home, with a dash or two of Tabasco for flavor. Johnson understands. As she writes: “You almost have to work at it to find bad food.”

Thank goodness, southern Louisiana is not France. Johnson shows us that no one needs Provence when Cajun Country is so near.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is an editorial writer and Commentary editor for The Birmingham News. He also teaches writing and literature at UAB. E-mail: