Remembering Grand Isle, by Elson Trahan, Jr. Portier Gorman Publications, 2017. $20, 220 pages. (Available by calling 985-632-3023.)
I drove to the South Lafourche Branch of the Lafourche Parish Public Library on a beautiful Saturday morning in February. It was that time of year when winter starts to trick you into thinking that it’s springtime: the azaleas were bright fuchsia; it was warm enough for the skin on my arms to feel sunlight for the first time in months; and, the water in Bayou Lafourche was so still that the reflection off of it was blinding. Elson Trahan, Jr. and I met at the South Lafourche Public Library in Cut Off, Louisiana, to discuss his memoir Remembering Grand Isle. I brought cookies. He brought his wife, Pricilla.
Trahan and I are both residents of Cut Off and attend the same church, Sacred Heart of Cut Off. We may not have known each other by face or first name, but once I introduced myself and after the customary hug, he asked the routine question “who’s your momma and daddy?” and soon realized that he and his wife used to go to the dancing hall with my paternal grandparents. After establishing this connection, our relationship quickly developed into something more than author and interviewer. This trust based on common connection is typical of Cajun culture here. It led to a flowing and fruitful three-hour conversation with stories of childhood delights, torrential storms, and unshakeable family bonds. But Trahan asked not to be recorded on my iPhone. During our conversation, there were no tightly wrapped up answers to my questions. The interview meandered, each question leading to a story which led to another story and eventually to another question, and off we went again. It turns out this was strikingly similar to the structure of Trahan’s book, Remembering Grand Isle.
It may seem that without prior knowledge of the seven-mile island in the Gulf of Mexico called Grand Isle, and the unique culture that exists there, the reader may have no reason to be interested in Remembering Grand Isle. Yet even a disinterested reader will find that they can’t put the book down. Trahan captivates through his storytelling technique. Consider the opening lines of his memoir:
This is not an important story. It is only a story about a small place and a few people who live there.
In this daring display of irony where the reader is told from the start that the story is unimportant, the reader also intuits the confidence Trahan has in his own narrating abilities: somehow, in spite of this admission, we know that there is a story ahead. Indeed, Trahan has had plenty of practice. He is known throughout the community as a talker—the 70-something retiree spends a lot of time at the South Lafourche Public Library exchanging stories with employees and patrons and can be found spinning yarns to other parishioners after mass. So when Trahan picked up a pen and legal pad to write down his own history of the island, he was not short on stories. The book’s structure reflects this anecdote-rife logic.
The memoir started out to be mere a written-down history meant for his grandchildren, inspired by Pricilla’s desire for his memories to not be forgotten. Trahan is not a writer, and still does not claim to be. He has never taken a writing class, and says he never enjoyed writing much either—he used to call his mother rather than write letters to her. By trade, Trahan was a barber and postal worker. He is also a self-taught artist, the creator of stunning paintings of his wife in senorita gowns and drawings of marsh ducks in more tones of gray than I ever imagined a pencil could render. He’s also a carver of wooden ducks and marine life. When he set about writing down his family history, he had no intention of taking up writing as a hobby, much less writing something we would classify as a memoir. But in October 2015, Trahan started writing “from the beginning”—that is, in 1885 when his step grandfather, Renaud Coulon, was born. One memory led to another and Trahan realized that his memories, which quickly filled up the entirety of a legal pad, had the potential to be more than random musings from his childhood—rather, they comprised a book.
During our time together, Trahan referred to Remembering Grand Isle as his “story,” but never his memoir. I interpreted this idiosyncrasy to be a way for Trahan to maintain humility. Instead of the word “memoir,” which would imply that people might pick up the book to learn about his life, he wanted to think of it as merely a story about a place, just as all places have their own stories. Perhaps he wanted to think of it as a story about an island, a story about his home, a story about a place usually forgotten except during prime fishing seasons. Trahan wanted to think of Grand Isle as a story worth telling—and that’s why he calls the book a story.
Remembering Grand Isle is about life in Grand Isle, Louisiana, bookended by Trahan’s birth in 1940 and when he moved off of the island in 1959. Though the story is framed around his years on the island, the book takes great care to describe the lifestyle of any islander, not just Trahan.
Part I of the memoir is broken up into seasons. Yet these seasons are not the four seasons readers may expect; rather, the seasons signify subtle changes for the farmers on the island. Trahan recounts many islanders, including his grandfather, were farmers and their calendar year was separated by the stages of agriculture: January-February for tilling; March-April-May for planting; June-July-August for harvesting; September-October for spending time away from the garden (for Trahan’s grandpa, that meant starting his carpentry work); and, November-December for family (and more carpentry work). The January-February section begins, “Cucumber was the cash crop.” Islanders would grow cucumbers and sell them to the French Market in New Orleans, the same market that operates today. In addition to the cucumber, farmers grew tomatoes, okra, beans, corn, lima beans, bell peppers, eggplant, squash, and other vegetables for personal use and to give to family members. But cucumbers were the only vegetables that the islanders profited from. From descriptions of the backbreaking labor of preparing the ground to plant to the anxiety surrounding the decision of when the right time was to start planting, always in fear of a late-March freeze, Trahan gives the reader an on-the-ground picture of Grand Isle. The book is absent of images contemporarily associated with the island: Mardi Gras-like festivities during the annual International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, tourists tanning on the beach, dozens of jet skis racing down the bay side of the island—these things exist off the page, as if on another Grand Isle somewhere else.
Instead, the island—today saturated with summer vacations homes, fishing camps, and camp grounds owned by people from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and other central and northern Louisiana cities, who leave during the winter months—is portrayed as a loving community with “neighbors helping neighbors,” the title of Chapter Six. In the opening scene of this particular chapter, set in the 1940s, Mr. Angelo’s house has been torn apart by a tornado:
By the time we arrived there must have been at least 15 or 20 people already there. As I looked around, I could see there were men already working on Mr. Angelo’s house. There were some women making coffee and beignets. There were several kids running around in the yard […] that night, when Mr. Angelo went to bed, his house was completely repaired […] The old islanders did for him what they would do for any of their neighbors or friends.
For any reader who thinks this is just a nostalgic depiction of a quaint town, coincidentally enough, my mother’s own home in Cut Off, 45 miles up Bayou Lafourche from Grand Isle, was hit by a tornado in late April 2018. My mother was visiting my home in New Orleans when she received a call from a relative about the storm. She left my house immediately and drove the hour and half southwest to Cut Off. By the time she arrived, a couple dozen friends and family members had cleaned up most of the debris and secured the damaged parts of the house until carpenters could permanently fix the roof and windows. Not long after noon, the entire group was eating chicken salad sandwiches and drinking iced tea inside of my mother’s house. So Remembering Grand Isle reflects contemporary life on the bayou, too.
Trahan’s second memory of neighbors helping neighbors is when one of them has to have an appendectomy:
[Mr. Rigaud] had to have emergency surgery. Some of his neighbors were going to pick his cucumbers for him […] I knew that Grandpa and all the other farmers still had cucumbers in their fields that needed to be picked, but if they did not help Mr. Rigaud by picking his crop, his crop would rot in the field […] Everyone knew that this year it was Mr. Rigaud who would need help. Next year it could be any one of them. So again, it was about neighbor helping neighbor. This was the way of life on Grand Isle in the early 1940s.
For readers who might nowadays think of Grand Isle as an “anything goes” coastal getaway for out-of-towners—my uncle calls it “seven miles of sand and sin”—it is refreshing to know that the island was once populated (and still is) with families that were part of a whole community.
Part I of Trahan’s book also recounts the festivities that happened during those seasons. A reader might assume that Mardi Gras would be the most festive day on the island. However, Trahan is quick to note that it was simply a day of celebration before the season of Lent:
In the early 1940s, I do not remember Mardi Gras being a big deal on Grand Isle. I do not even remember seeing a parade. I do remember seeing a few of the islanders dressing up and wearing a mask. They would walk on some of the island’s lanes. They would make a lot of noise to draw attention to themselves…at midnight everything would stop. Mardi Gras was over; it was now Lent.
After establishing that his collection of memories could stretch beyond the daily activities of a farmer, Trahan knew that it must be an authentic account of his experiences, told in a way that would resonate with readers. With that in mind, Trahan’s goals were to write in a way that people could visualize and feel what he was feeling as a Grandillian in the 1940s and 50s, making sure his information was free of error, and that the finished work must be precisely to his liking. The only way he knew how to do that was to write just as he tells stories orally. The effect is such that the reader might detect a slight Hemingway-esque directness that contributes to the book’s readability. Though his pronounced Cajun accent—thick, rolling, warm, rough, yet also flowing—can be detected in between the lines of his writing, it may be hard for a non-native of South Louisiana to pick up. Nonetheless, Remembering Grand Isle is plentiful in descriptions that allow all readers to visualize the place. For instance, Trahan recounts going to the island’s local post office as a child:
When we arrived, I saw this big green building. It had two doors and a porch. Grandpa told me the door on the right was for the grocery store. The door on the left was for the post office […] Grandpa held my hand as we walked up the steps. We headed for the door on the left—the post office.
This encounter with the post office did not strike me as though it was one of Trahan’s foundational memories. However, Trahan admitted that he and his editors spent much time condensing this section—that first encounter with the post office impressed upon him in such a way that, later in his life, he was called to postal work. Trahan’s memory of this first encounter with this post office—from its smell to its sounds—is vivid. But, he knew that readers might not be as interested in the post office as they would be in other scenes and stories, so many of the details and other memories surrounding his younger years at the post office are truncated or excluded from the book.
Trahan also wanted readers to see Grand Isle on a global scale. His father and uncle were drafted into World War II. Living on an island of farmers, Trahan does not have any memories of rationing, but the happenings of the war linger in the background just like they were in the periphery of the minds of the islanders:
The island had always been a quiet and peaceful place. The old islanders did not even lock their doors when they left home. They trusted and looked out for each other. But in 1942, the war brought something new to the island—FEAR. The islanders feared the possibility of German troops invading the island. The islanders were told that German submarines had been spotted in the gulf not too far from the island. So, the islanders’ fear of the German soldiers invading the island was not an unrealistic fear. Some of the islanders had doubts about these reports. But when a submarine torpedoed a tanker near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche that event pretty well took away any doubt that any of the islanders might have had. They were pretty much in agreement. If a submarine could come that close to the island, what could stop them if they decided to dispatch ground troops and invade Grand Isle?
Without electricity to the island, radios, letters, and meat merchants from the mainland were the only form of communication. On the island, person-to-person contact was the way to communicate. So, when Trahan heard church bells ringing at an unusual time in late summer 1945, he knew something big was happening:
I was playing on the porch. Suddenly I heard the church bell start to ring. I would hear the church bell ring every day at noon. But Grandpa had already had dinner. He had already gone back to work. I knew it was way past noon. Still the church bell was ringing…I do not know where Grandma had gone, but when I saw her, she was on Coulon-Rigaud Land. She was walking as fast as she could…she was saying. “the war is over. The war is over. The war is over.” […] She walked into the house. She went to her cabinet. She opened the door and took out a big, thick cooking pot. She opened a drawer and pulled out a big cooking spoon. She walked to the kitchen door, stepped outside, and stood on the top step. She began to beat that pot with that big spoon. She was laughing. She was crying.
Trahan credits his experiences as a reader as to why he took great effort in writing the book for his audience. His greatest fear was including too many details. He was afraid that the book would “get boring in a hurry” (a phrase he used many times to explain exactly what he did not want to happen) and ruin the flow of the story. Too much detail, he explained, would numb the impact of what he is really trying to get across. He shared an example where he encountered this: Upon insistence from a friend, Trahan, who generally reads nonfiction, read a novel. The description of the Thanksgiving feast in the novel was 30 pages long. Once he realized that the overwhelming details of the meal did not aid the overall plot of the story, he returned the book to the Lafourche Parish Public Library without finishing it. He disliked that book for its over use of descriptions and knew his book would not have irrelevant details that might have been important to him, but only those that he thought his readers would be interested in. The reader may wonder about this novel with a 30-page description of the feast—Gertrude Stein, perhaps?—but Trahan would not name the book or the author.
As he began writing a history of a largely undocumented place, Trahan knew a backlash that might come if his book had inaccuracies. He recounted going to the South Lafourche Public Library and being unable to find the exact date Highway 1 was extended to Grand Isle–then and still the only road connecting the mainland to the island. He could not find an exact date, but only vague mentions of it happening in the 1930s. Instead of estimating or going off of hearsay, Trahan never got specific. In the memoir, it says “in the early 30s.” What may seem like an irrelevant or vague detail highlights a theme throughout his book: truthfulness, even when this means a lack of precision. In our era of fake news, Trahan wanted no chance of doubt in his writing. Any inaccuracy would ruin his credibility.
Trahan also hired editors to insure his work was error free. Joan Guidry, a retired typing teacher from the local high school, transcribed Trahan’s memories from the legal pad. Linda Lafont, a retired French teacher from the local high school, served as line editor. Trahan said that whenever they were free, they would call to meet up in order to discuss the book. (As a student of both Mrs. Guidry and Mrs. Lafont, I imagine the threesome’s only area of conflict was when to stop telling each other stories and when to get to work on the book.)
Trahan’s eye for detail even includes the book’s design: he wanted every chapter to begin on the right side. When I asked why, he said he just likes how it looks and likes when everything looks the same. He didn’t need the history of verso and recto page layout to know what he preferred. He also wanted a specific book size, font, and letter size. Even though the book is not set in large print, he did not want his friends to have a hard time seeing the pages—so he was attentive to the exact size of the typeface. He wanted the cover to look like a beach because the story takes place near the beach. When the publication process began, Portier Gorman Publications out of Thibodeaux, Louisiana, created an ombre design that faded from dark blue to tan, just like water and sand. Trahan wanted each section in the book to be clearly distinguished from the previous one, but he could not find a section break that he liked. In a display of Cajun ingenuity, he made his own. The seashell on the cover of the book as well as the seashells that break each section are drawn by Trahan.
In other words, Trahan had an intuitive sense of how his book should look, combined with a learned sense of how a story should flow. All this mixed with the skill to angle a pencil so it creates just the desired heaviness to shade and outline a mallard’s hackle. The wise and weathered Cajun man who still weight-lifts and once competed in competitive chess matches has a pronounced talent for creating art out of life. Trahan had strong ideas for his book and crafted the final product in a direct style that makes its worth evaluating from a literary perspective. I read Remembering Grand Isle from a place of having heard many variations on stories of days in South Louisiana before electricity and garbage disposal. I predicted the stories of God and family (in that order) at the center of life. But what I did not expect was to be projected into Grand Isle in the 40s and 50s in such a powerful, magnetic way. Trahan makes his grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins come to life rather than hover like faceless characters as they sometimes seem in stories told by others. His writing gives validation to the homely beauty of South Louisiana and provides insight as to why it’s the hidden paradise that he—we—call home.
I had no intention of discussing the cover design with Trahan, just as I had no intention of discussing the secret to a 50-year loving relationship, the special ingredients in our favorite Cajun dishes, or taking a walk to the other side of the South Lafourche Public Library where his marsh duck drawings are on display. But somehow, three hours later, I left with more writing material and life advice than I ever anticipated receiving. And Trahan left having not touched the cookies; he had given them up for Lent.
Fallon Chiasson is a student at Loyola University New Orleans. She is from Cut Off, Louisiana.