The Great American Road Trip
Destination: New Orleans, Louisiana (1817)
Books: A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly (1997)
New Orleans Noir, edited by Julie Smith (2007)
People of color could be classified in a dozen ways like mulatto, griffe, octoroon, musterfino and more. But whites were classified, also. Besides the Spanish, there were the Creoles–French who had settled in New Orleans, frequently coming up from Caribbean islands.
“White Creoles, by the way, had an intricate hierarchy of words to categorize each other as to social standing and how long their families had been prominent in New Orleans society, so they evidently just liked to label things. Americans, of course, simply did not count.”
A Free Man of Color
It takes a scholar of medieval history to explain the complex social system of early nineteenth century New Orleans. In A Free Man of Color, Barbara Hambly*, who studied medieval history, manages to familiarize the reader with New Orleans society’s nuances while Benjamin January, the main character, weaves and dodges through a suspense-filled story line.
This book defies skimming. Getting through the first couple of chapters felt like pushing through a murky swamp, because of all the background information that the author needed to convey. But give the book time and you’ll embark on a series of action-packed scenes as January fights to save his own life by uncovering who killed a glamorous octoroon in Mardi Gras season.
Hambly skillfully evokes an era that we romanticize, seeing it lit by soft candlelight or gas lamps. But even though he is a highly educated free Black man, January’s life reminds us of the daily humiliation of living as a black in the days of slavery. Trained as a physician, he works as a musician, and frequently has to duck his head and act subservient for his own survival. Because he has recently returned from several years in Paris, we get his fresh observations on New Orleans.
The book also serves as a reminder that New Orleans did not become instantly American when the Declaration of Independence was signed in far away New England. I once talked to the owner of a French language bookstore in New Orleans who told me that in the 1700s, the newspapers in the city did not mention the Declaration of Independence or victory over the British. To these French speakers, America was a far-off place, crude and without culture.
That flavor of the nineteenth century lingers in New Orleans and makes it distinct from any other city in the United States. That is why A Free Man of Color, or any of the other Benjamin January series that came after it, belongs in the traveler’s library. The ninth January novel, Dead and Buried, became available last spring, after a hiatus of several years since the eighth.
*The website linked here has an up-to-date blog, mostly not written by Barbara herself and a lot of outdated pages. For another route to Hambly updates, follow her on Twitter, where for some reason she has only 102 followers.
In New Orleans, you frequently get a little extra–the 13th doughnut in a dozen philosophy expanded to life in general. So here’s another book.
New Orleans Noir (2007), edited by Julie Smith, pulls together a collection of stories written by New Orleans writers just a year after the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Each story was crafted specially for this book.
Barbara Hambly presents a short Benjamin January mystery with humor and other New Orleans writers reflect on mystery and violence, both fictional and real, that take place in various parts of the city.
This book, by the way, is also part of a series that presents noir in various cities–for example, Brooklyn, London, Miami, Rome, etc. I’m off to seek out the Paris Noir.
(And meanwhile you can read more about New Orleans at a number of my posts, starting with New Orleans writers; plus for lagniappe, this post on Girls’ Getaway to help you plan your trip to New Orleans.)
See Music for New Orleans (it is not all jazz) at Kerry Dexter’s wonderful musical guide, Music Road.
What do YOU like to do in New Orleans? And what do you read to get into the New Orleans frame of mind?