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Books & Film Notes – Week 5

Spring 2015 Books & Film Class
Topic – From Kate Chopin to Swamp People
Held Wednesdays through February 11 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson

littlealtarsSadly, this week was our final class of the session. We continued our discussion of Rebecca Wells’ Little Altars Everywhere and watched clips from TV shows “Swamp People,” “Duck Dynasty” and “True Detective.”

Dr. Wilson started off with a copy of the October 2014 edition of National Geographic, which called Louisiana the “weirdest country in America.” The works we’ve been talking about this session and the video clips we watched (examples below) certainly illustrate why our state is such a fascinating blend of indigenous culture, stereotypes and, you have to admit, plain weirdness.

Little Altars is a hilarious and tragic mix of what the central part of the state has to offer, while also showing how large a part religion and race relations factor into daily life. Wells tells the black and white story simultaneously, and at the end of the novel Chaney is working on a scrapbook that puts the Walker children’s accomplishments right beside his own dark-skinned daughters.

The novel also ends with a homecoming for Sidda and a baptism as a sign of redemption. As estranged Sidda reunites with her crazy family, she invokes a divine maternal image that becomes a theme in Wells’ later novels. “She’s somebody bigger, somebody much older, somebody so tender that just looking into her eyes is like a sweet, much needed nap. She speaks to me daily, this mother, with little private signs. And all I have to do is keep walking, with my ears tuned and my eyes wide open,” she writes on the final page.

Is this mother figure Sidda speaks of Willetta? Possibly. She could also be a more relatable stand-in for the Virgin Mary, but the point is that Sidda has found something larger than Vivi and something that can give her the comfort her own mother isn’t capable of offering.

As we move on to discussing how Louisiana is depicted on television, it’s clear that family plays a large part in most of these narratives. “Swamp People” and “Duck Dynasty” both depict ways of life that involve family businesses and passing on knowledge to the next generation, no matter how thick the accent.

Airing on The History Channel since 2012, “Swamp People” represents a back to nature or adventure angle. “Welcome to one of America’s last frontiers: the wild swamplands of Southern Louisiana, a place whose history stretches back to the 17th century” reads the synopsis of Season 1 on the website.

Yes, Troy Landry is about as Cajun as it gets and sometimes needs subtitles, but he’s become a hero for young boys as he imparts lessons on preservation, cooking and even dating set to the backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery the state has to offer. The waters get murkier as you consider “Duck Dynasty” on A&E. More of a wilderness show that capitalizes on what Dr. Wilson calls the “redneck mystique,” this is also a family show centered around the Robinsons in North Louisiana, who’ve made millions from a duck call they invented.

The redneck or “Bubba” figure in Southern literature started out as a derogatory term during the Civil Rights Era, as James Cobb points out in his book Away Down South. Around the 1970s, the word became more respectable in part due to mentions in country music songs like George Jones’ “High-Tech Redneck.” “Duck Dynasty” idealizes the redneck figure through its characters’ bushy beards, crazy antics and family prayer, but patriarch Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality and beastiality last year have hurt the show’s ratings and further perpetuated the backwoods stereotype.

Moving out of the reality genre, “True Detective,” which aired on HBO last year, is more mysterious and metaphysical with a script written by Lake Charles author Nic Pizzolatto. It’s a crime drama that’s also been given the label “cosmic horror,” as stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson explore a Gothic landscape (located outside of New Orleans).

The show has other literary connections as well: Mythical place Carcosa comes from an Ambrose Bierce short story, mentions of “The Yellow King” harken back to a book by Robert Chambers, and certain scenes are said to be derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”

A struggle between darkness and lightness is at the heart of “True Detective,” but the same could be said about Little Altars Everywhere. Rust Kohle finds his lightness in the night sky at the end of “True Detective,” and Siddalee Walker finds hers in a sacrament.

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1 COMMENT
  • Danna / February 18, 2015

    These follow-up articles have been terrific! Thanks so much, Erin. It really enriched this already great learning experience

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