Gaines Tells the Stories of His People and His Land ; in a Few Short Stories and a Cluster of Essays, a Louisiana Writer Describes Life along the False River

By Spanberg, Erik | The Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Gaines Tells the Stories of His People and His Land ; in a Few Short Stories and a Cluster of Essays, a Louisiana Writer Describes Life along the False River


Spanberg, Erik, The Christian Science Monitor


Amid the old oak trees, scattered pecans, and old plantations dotting Pointe Coupee Parish in south Louisiana, a 72-year-old man continues the search for his people along the False River. Ernest J. Gaines, once lived in these quarters and worked in the fields.

What rings true for Mr. Gaines today hasn't changed during a remarkable 40-year writing career: He keeps telling the stories of his people and his land, stories he has been unable to find elsewhere.

"I wanted to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river," Gaines writes in Mozart and Leadbelly, his new collection of stories and essays. "I wanted to see on paper those Louisiana black children walking to school on cold days while yellow Louisiana buses passed them by. I wanted to see on paper those black parents going to work before the sun came up and coming back home to look after their children after the sun went down."

Throughout his new book, a meditation on fiction writing paired with a handful of short stories, Gaines reveals the constant doubts accompanying the artist's quest - as well as the spirit spurring him forward.

More than anything, the author of "A Lesson Before Dying" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" feels compelled to deliver the hardscrabble experiences of his contemporaries and ancestors alike, poor rural blacks in south Louisiana with few prospects.

At 15, Gaines left Pointe Coupee Parish, packed off by relatives to join his parents in California, where he gained formal education and eventually wound up at San Francisco State University and, later, at Stanford University. He never left Louisiana behind, massaging memories of the sights, sounds, and smells of the bayou. Indelible, too, were the heroic everyday struggles Gaines witnessed, including those of a beloved aunt who couldn't walk but still managed to feed, clothe, and protect the author during childhood.

Since those days, Gaines has made it his mission to recapture the world inhabited by his aunt and other sharecroppers, a world of relentless heat, insipid segregation, back-breaking work, and the mild refuge of God and gumbo, if not always in that order. …

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