Back in 1984, the editor of The Commercial Appeal, Mike Grehl, sent reporter Rheta Grimsley Johnson on a journalistic mission to roam far and wide across the country looking for regional distinctions. The result was a book called America's Faces, a successful career as a syndicated columnist, and, in a roundabout way, a love affair with the town of Henderson, Louisiana, deep in Cajun Country.
Johnson, who splits her time between Henderson and Iuka, Mississippi, will be in Memphis June 9th at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library at 6:30 p.m. for a celebration of all things Cajun and a reading from her new book, Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana (NewSouth Books).
A road warrior if there ever was one, Johnson turned out four columns a week for The Commercial Appeal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Lately, she's been back on the road publicizing the book with her trademark humor and independence.
"I went to Oxford to speak to the Rotary Club," she says. "They said it was against Rotary bylaws to let me sell books. And they made me take off my Travis Childers lapel pin." She tried bootlegging books out of the back of her van afterward, but when only one straggler followed her outside, she decided to drive home. A few weeks later, she spoke to another Rotary Club in Alexandria, Louisiana, where her now-weekly column runs, and drew a big crowd and sold several books. "Evidently, they didn't know about the policy. It sort of made me forgive Rotarians."
The title of her book, she admits, throws some people.
"I thought everyone knew about poor-man's-this and poor-man's-that, but some people think it's a slur. What I'm saying is that I'm poor and this is my way to go to Provence. But a lot of people have never heard of Provence."
It was hard to write unflinchingly about a place where she also lives.
"It took me, literally, a decade and change. As a columnist, I'm used to going places and parachuting in. But to presume to write a whole book about a culture not your own and a place where you only spend part of the year made me a little hesitant."
Johnson's favorite writer is Raymond Chandler, but her hero, I suspect, is Chandler's hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, a knight in the decadent world of Southern California. In Johnson's world, 2,500 miles and 70 years away, the columnist is also a knight, bound by a code of honor to treat both subjects and readers fairly and honestly, to travel any distance in all kinds of weather to meet them on their own turf, to avoid clichés and well-worn paths, to meet all deadlines, and to do it year after year for 20 years. Pretty amazing. Here are a few excerpts from the book:
On Henderson: "Friendship meant something here. It meant sitting up with folks who had lost a family member, giving even when it meant you would have to do without, staying in touch even if you had to ride your lawnmower to visit."
On following popular good-old-boy columnist Lewis Grizzard at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "If only I'd saved my angry e-mail from that first year in Atlanta I would have had an effortless book: Grizzard Is Dead, and I Don't Feel So Good Myself.
On the Angola Prison Rodeo: "The spring version begins with a purely Protestant prayer, a prayer to age an ACLU lawyer by a decade."
On a cockfight in Cajun Country: "To the uninitiated, a cockfight looks something like two men shaking feather dusters at each other."
On the difficulty of finding good bread in Henderson: "French bread is a lot like a Southern accent. It doesn't travel well."
On her trade: "Fate is sometimes kind to desperate columnists, which, of course, is a redundancy; any writer with four deadlines a week is desperate."
Rheta Grimsley Johnson reads from Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Monday, June 9th, at 6:30 p.m.