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The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by…
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The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

by Elise Blackwell

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I had no expectations going into this one since I had never heard of it before finding out that a Twitter friend wrote it. Wonder coming-of-age story that also explores politics and family dynamics. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
I had no expectations going into this one since I had never heard of it before finding out that a Twitter friend wrote it. Wonder coming-of-age story that also explores politics and family dynamics. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
"If you were to place, side by side, the historical account of something that happened, a painting of it, and a scientific explanation of how and why it occurred, you might still not understand it...."

This is a novel constructed around the events of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, and there were enough facts in the book to make me hunger for more information about that flood. I've gone ahead and ordered the nonfiction book Blackwell used as her resource for the novel (the name is escaping me at the moment), and it's now on my Kindle. The book reminded me of William Maxwell's So Long See You Tomorrow, in that the narrator is an older man looking back at decisions he made in his youth that have affected him throughout his life and that he now regrets. It's a quiet, contemplative book set around harrowing events. There are side stories about leprosy in Louisiana and how it was handled at that time, fur trapping in the swamps, smuggling liquor, a reclusive artist, and small town politics and the power held by local officials. (While Cypress Parish is fictional, (counties are called parishes in Louisiana), the politics reminded me of Leander Perez and his iron-clad control of Plaquemines Parish).

During the early 20th century there was much debate over how best to control recurring Mississippi River floods by levees or by spillways. Proponents of a levees only policy claimed that levees not only blocked flood waters, but also increased the velocity of the waters, thus causing the river to carry more sediment and causing the river to dredge its own bottom. They argued that the creation of outlets or spillways would only undo what levees do. Proponents of spillways pointed out that in the 1922 floods, a crevasse opened in the levee south of New Orleans. It created a swale of water 1500 feet wide and more than 100 feet high, and saved New Orleans from flooding.

In the novel, as well as factually, as dire predictions of record flood waters spread, the powers-that-be in New Orleans met on April 25, 1927, and secretly agreed to dynamite the levees south of New Orleans to prevent serious flooding in New Orleans. This required approval from the governor, and before giving his approval the governor wanted four lawyers to give unambiguous legal opinions that he had the proper authority and would incur no personal liability. Ultimately the levee was dynamited. Sightseers on pleasure boats watched, and there was a carnival-like atmosphere. While the residents of the parishes that flooded were supposed to be compensated for their losses, very few in fact received fair compensation.

As it turned out, the day after the levee was dynamited, levees of several tributaries of the Mississippi burst with no human intervention. Their waters rolled across the Atchafalaya basin and harmlessly out to the Gulf. New Orleans would have been spared even without the destruction of the levee south of it. Backlash against the governor helped Huey Long get elected governor in the next election. The price of the control achieved after the 1927 flood was the withholding of sediment from the delta. Between 1932 and 2000, 1900 square miles of Louisiana's marshes have washed away. As one of the characters in the novel stated: "I know that it's always a mistake to think you can control something wild." ( )
4 vote arubabookwoman | Sep 21, 2013 |
If you like historical fiction with a bit of mystery intertwined, you will like this. I won't repeat the plot, but I found it totally fascinating and found myself going back to reread parts -- the chapter headings were so helpful, I'm thinking the author anticipated readers rereading parts. The idea of taking art "backwards" isn't new, but it is still fascinating.

And, if you enjoy this title, check out the movie The Red Violin and another great book by Susan Vreeland Girl in Hyacinth Blue ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
In Elise Blackwell’s second novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, she tells a compelling story of the 1927 flood in Louisiana. Louis Proby, the main character, now living in New Orleans, is 95, and looks back on his life when he was 17 years old awaiting the first flooding of New Orleans.

This is a tale of sacrifice and heroism with a delicate balance of history and fiction as it portrays a family in the mid 1920’s. Many characters seem authentic and come alive as Louis narrates his account. He remembers Cypress Parish was destroyed because the city fathers said dynamiting the levees was necessary to save New Orleans. Louis always knew the truth that his own father had played an important role in the decision which allowed Cypress Parish to go under pointlessly.

Proby lives through a complex time in history. Louis writes detailed descriptions of seedy clubs in Crescent City (New Orleans), of bootlegging, of levee construction, of Carville leper colony and the philosophy of Pliny the Elder. Louis falls in love with a French girl by the name of Nanette Lancon, but loses his heart as she wanders away from him.

This book delicately balances history with fiction and shows how politics destroyed a city and changed an entire way of life in Cypress Parish.

This powerful story is of a young man and events which lured him from boyhood to manhood. He learns the truth about his father and how he was one of the driving forces which helped save New Orleans. Because of Blackwell’s upbringing in Louisiana, she brings life to the South, accuracy to people, and reality to places. She thoroughly researched the era, used familial records and historical events, to accurately weave these materials into her book. A grim subject matter embraces the reader with a feeling of pleasantness because of Elise’s elegant prose.

Readers will appreciate the life experiences in the 1920’s as Louis Proby awaits his flood. This book is highly recommended especially after the disaster in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and the failing levees. ( )
  clarkisaacs | Sep 24, 2008 |
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As Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Louisiana coast, Louis remembers the great flood of 1927, when people in authority said that they needed to flood the poor regions so they could save New Orleans. Based on actual events.

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