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Book Highlights Quirks Of La. Cajun Swamp Town

Frazzled journalists commonly head to the mountains or the beach to escape the daily grind, but Rheta Grimsley Johnson found solace off the beaten path — in a swamp.

Johnson, a syndicated newspaper columnist, landed in the tiny town of Henderson, La. — self-proclaimed gateway to the Atchafalaya River Basin. She chronicles her love affair with the place and the people in the book Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana.

Johnson's adventure began with an unwanted assignment to cover a wild boar hunt in Louisiana for an Atlanta newspaper. She finished the unpleasant task early and set out with her husband to explore the nearby Atchafalaya swamp. The couple liked the scenery and pace of life enough to stick around and spend winters in Henderson.

The Houseboat, The Swamp, The People

Along the maze of boardwalks lining Henderson swamp, Johnson points to one of the houseboats tucked beneath the moss-draped cypress and willow trees.

"We saw the boat with the two signs," Johnson says. "One said 'The Green Queen' and the other said 'For Sale,' and it began our great adventure."

The couple decided to make The Green Queen into a second home of sorts.

"It's a shanty boat, not a fancy houseboat-yacht kind of affair," Johnson says. "It's one room and it's the color of an after-dinner mint. It's got vinyl siding, and faux shutters, and [it's] all green ... very green."

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

"It was something so familiar yet strange," she says. "It was as if I had been here before and left and come back."

If it was the swamp that drew her, it was the people of Henderson who have kept her returning for more than 10 years now.

"There was this unusual, almost anachronistic connection to the land that reminded me of my grandparents, peanut farming in south Georgia," Johnson says. "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."

Truck-Driving Cajun Mama

Helene Boudreaux is one of the main characters of Poor Man's Provence. She's also the Cajun French Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year.

But around here, people know her by another title: "Catahoula truck-driving Cajun mama," Boudreaux says, as she is a retired long-distance truck driver turned singer-songwriter. Her latest song is an ode to the town she grew up in.

"Beautiful Catahoula, sits right on the edge of that swamp," Boudreaux sings. "Though my trees and my branches are gone now, my roots and heart still belong."

Boudreaux's father was a sugar cane farmer, and her background is humble.

"We slept four in a bed," she says. "We had a sharecropper house — we had cracks in our floors. We'd feed corn to the chickens under the house. "

Faith Healer

Though her singing is lovely, people from all over Acadiana come to see Boudreaux for her other calling — as a faith 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 are from my old aunt. It's 300 years of prayers."

She has a special chant for just about any ailment.

"Now a wart prayer — for warts?" Boudreaux says. "For a female you say pigalit, pigalit, pigalit — tap the wart. Pigalit, pigalit, pigalit — tap the wart. And if it's a male, it's pigalee, pigalee, pigalee — tap the wart."

'A Higher Species With Lowdown Habits'

While Poor Man's Provence captures unique characters like 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 motor boats.

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.

On the porch of her Green Queen houseboat, Johnson peers out over the water and reads a passage from Poor Man's Provence about evolution and the swamp:

"Something begins to bubble beneath the green carpet of hydrilla, unseen proof of life," she says. "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 boll of unpicked cotton. You also see the big tracks of Homo sapiens — abandoned pipelines and litter and oil streaks across a 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."

And Johnson says all of us still have mud on our backs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.