Saturday, January 17, 2009
I have been thinking about Oak Alley lately, because I just finished reading the last of two books I got at the gift shop. So to refresh my memory, I looked at the website today. Not only were "Primary Colors" and "Interview with a Vampire" filmed there, so were the exteriors for "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte."
I bought two books at the gift shop, assuming that they would complement one another. One was "When I Was a Slave," which is 34 of 2,000 total oral histories taken by WPA writers. Kind of hard to get your mind around that people who were able to remember being slaves were still alive in the 1930s, but it’s true. It’s a Dover paperback. Many of the narratives are so harrowing, there were only so many I could read in a row and then I’d have to take a break. Truly gruesome, heart-breaking stories, like a mistress whipping a little girl for crying, and not stopping until she was dead. Or a master who, after having a slave whipped, instructed his overseer to rub salt in her wounds. That doesn’t seem out of place in biblical times; it seems barely conceivable even a hundred and fifty years ago.
The other book was "Memories of a Golden Age: A Glimpse into the River Region Past" by Joanne Amort. What I knew of the River Road was from guidebooks and some of the novels of Frances Parkinson Keyes. Mrs. Keyes was from New England, but used to spend her winters in New Orleans. Some of the local color is her books is fantastic; unfortunately many of her characterizations of black people are stereotypical even for her era (1920s-1960s). "Memories of a Golden Age" is about the white families of two plantations on the River Road, Oak Alley and Le Petit Versailles, beginning in 1839. These plantations grew sugar cane, not cotton. The book is an attempt to paint a picture of the propertied class’ antebellum life, and how that changed after the Civil War. That is a jammed-packed historical era; there’s the constant threat of disease, rebellion, great marital stress, financial reverses, etc. But somehow the writer manages to suck the drama right out of the story. It ought to be a much better book than it is.
I really don’t have any desire to return to a plantation. And it creeps me out that people have any desire to, let alone actually do, get married at Oak Alley. Can you imagine the deprivation and back-breaking work of the field slaves, in that summertime heat, of skimming the cauldrons of boiling cane liquid? You want to be married among those ghosts? Not me.