As this novel opens, Topal and Evvie, the two young Crochet daughters, are out in frosty grass bringing down all the birds they can manage to hit with a slingshot, then wading through the marsh to trade the birds to a smelly old fisherman to use as bait in return for coffee coupons good for premiums redeemable at the store; and “Let me carry her,” Evvie says when the statue of the Blessed Mother is handed over. “I killed most of the birds.”
It is a strange opening scene, set in a part of the country most of us never saw, had never known was on the map. It is a scene which takes for granted the misuse of everything—birds—young girls—the Virgin—probably even the barter system. It is also true comedy, and is brought about to tell us how desperate life is on Grass Margin.
Grass Margin is the name of this narrow peninsula at the lowest fringe of Louisiana, running out into the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi’s mouth, and margin is the word for their whole world, and the fact of their lives, for the people there; it is the exact substance of what they are clinging to to survive. It’s where the verbal form for “go” is “take the levee,” where crawfish breed under the house, where the vibrations from a passing boat cause the statue of the Blessed Mother to travel across the mantel shelf to the edge and need to be kept an eye on, and where the lone doctor arrives at his office in hip boots and carrying a pirogue paddle, direct from his latest confinement case in the marshes.
The novel has strong physical presence. How easy it is to see the family out on the levee, stooped under the great white clouds “as though hunting something which had fallen from the sky”—actually for wild greens on Good Friday to cook for dinner; the young girl fruitpickers in their tinted blouses up in the orange trees, being treated to a wrestling match on the ground between two furious young men, delighting in it even when a knife is pulled out; Jaurelle dancing on the sack of dried shrimps to remove their shells.
O’Donnell makes eloquent even the objects of everyday life: the old cypress pirogue, “hollowed from a root by Tony’s great-grandfather, was filled with ancient cracks and holes patched over with rusty tin. Its bottom, [End Page 13] which had been dragged over reefs and clamshell bottoms for nearly a hundred years, was worn thin as grocery cheese.” Even when we can’t see it, we know this world is there. At midnight, we can smell the lilies from a mile away. In the river fog, we hear the close bells of invisible ships.
When sentimental Uncle Dewey tells Topal, “Don’t be downhearted, my lil Creole belle,” she flares up. “Who’s Creole? I’m Cajun and proud of it.” So are they all, proud, passionate, and instantly assertive. They’re a people temperamentally unsuited to working for others. (Remember poor Topal, trying it at the shrimp factory.) The grain of their character is independence. And in their hearts they can all be dreamers. There’s only one who takes authority as a realist. “Me, I been fooled too much,” says Mrs. Crochet to Commodo, her husband. “You got sixty dollar, you ole rangatang of a fool walking all over your shoestrings with your sherry-wine ideas?”
O’Donnell writes with particular tenderness for the youthful characters, and with one exception (Mrs. Crochet, of course) they have been given more depth than their elders. We see Evvie—vulnerable, sweet-natured, responding with fervor to life before she quite knows (and nobody will tell her) where it can lead her—she can’t help calling back and forth with those unseen men in their unseen boat in the fog—and at fourteen helplessly seductive, she is besieged simultaneously from four directions with unwanted attentions, simply by occupying her seat at the movie on bank night. Her dream, that...