Bayou Suzette

PDF-file by Lois Lenski

Bayou Suzette PDF ebook download A fascinating glimpse into the past and attitudes of the past. I read it for a picture of bayou life: I knew I could count on Lois Lenski to have really done her research (she was alway very thorough, even living with families in the various locales she portrayed, in some cases), but what I found intriguing in reading this 1943 story were how attitudes have changed. The plot of this one centers on Marteel, a Sabine Indian who befriends the titular Suzette. Marteel wants very much to join Suzette's large Cajun family and become a white girl. You can see how this plot wouldn't fly nowadays.

Lenski portrays Marteel as a resourceful, brave, determined girl and is sympathetic to Indian culture: Marteel feeds the family alligator tail at one point, to everyone's amazement, and Papa Jules remarks, "Marteel, she smarter'n I t'ink." And the main conflict-producing plot element—Marteel's stealing of a doll that belonged to Suzette's dead sister—is explained in terms of Indian culture: "[The Injuns] believe that when one person dies, another can come and take his place. Marteel was only carrying out an old tribal custom. She thought she was taking Tit-tat's place and so Tit-tat's doll rightfully belonged to her. Taking it was not stealing. Taking it was not doing wrong. Poor Marteel, she'll find it hard to be a white girl, yes. Mebbe she better off with her own people."

In the end, Suzette's mother's prejudice against Marteel is overcome, and Marteel does end up living with Suzette's family. The other Indians in the story are shown as abusive and glad to be rid of Marteel, and there seems no question in Lenski's mind that this outcome (the story ends with Marteel saying "Marteel, white girl now") is a happy one. Definitely a story that's limited by the era in which it's written: Lenski can approve of elements of Indian tradition, but she can't keep herself from assuming that "becoming white" is a happy outcome.

All the same, it's a charming story, with lots of adventure, and both Marteel and Suzette are wonderful characters, as are the supporting characters. And although dialect writing isn't popular these days, I enjoyed Lenski's representation of Cajun speech (which she gained through time spent in Bayou Barataria.)

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