Tuesday, November 28, 2017

IT’S TIME FOR CLOVIS



Mary Alice Fontenot photographed by Debbra Sperco Piehler

The Christmas season approaches, and this morning I began thinking about gifts for the great-grandchildren in my family. For me, a list of Christmas gifts for the little ones includes Clovis Crawfish books, so I searched the cardboard box that contains desk copies of all the books I’ve written for a copy of Their Adventurous Will a book that features memorable Louisiana women and contains an essay about the creator of Clovis, Mary Alice Fontenot. Mary Alice died at the age of 93, and I estimate that her output included eighteen books about Louisiana, the most notable ones about critters native to southwest Louisiana bayou country. I sat down to read my own essay about this woman who wrote and read aloud memorable folk tales at school and library performances for children in Louisiana, beginning in 1959. 

I have a copy of Mary Alice on tape being interviewed by me somewhere in research material between New Iberia, Louisiana, and Sewanee, Tennessee. I couldn’t find the tape, but the interview with Mary Alice recorded in the introduction to the essay of Their Adventurous Will was sufficient to bring up cogent memories of that live 1983 interview. Actually, I was introduced to Clovis Crawfish in the early 1960’s when I began haunting the Iberia Parish Library. Ruth Lefkovits, the parish librarian at that time, introduced me to the books about this Cajun creature and informed me that if I was interested in writing, I should meet Mary Alice Fontenot, the creator of Clovis. “She’s a master storyteller,” she said, “and she frequents libraries a lot.” After I read one of the books in the Clovis series I became fascinated with the French-speaking crawfish who enchanted children in Acadiana. He seemed to know more about the Cajun landscape than the people who netted him and his progeny every spring during the crawfish season in Louisiana.

I didn’t meet Mary Alice until 1976 when I attended an autograph party for her book about Clovis Crawfish and Etienne Escargot, the snail. At that time I interviewed her for a feature story I’d been assigned to write for the Daily Iberian in New Iberia. When I walked into the meeting room of the New Iberia Library, Mary Alice was seated at a long table with a child on her lap, reading quietly from her book about Etienne Escargot. She had a soft-speaking storytelling style, punctuated by lively hand flourishes. Her characters seemed to be the gentlest creatures in bayou country, moving to help one another in their survival efforts, protecting the smallest critter from screaming blue jays, finding food for a starving ant, and singing, always singing, about their triumphs over natural disasters. Mary Alice finished her story, signed two books, put her arms around a child who was glued to her side and began telling the story about Etienne again — this time for me. The entire interview was made up of her storytelling.

“Clovis Crawfish symbolizes the Cajun people of south Louisiana,” she explained with a flourish of her hands in typical ‘if you tied my hands, I couldn’t talk’ French fashion. “I try to endow him with those traits that are common to the Acadians —concern for others, willingness to help with problems, and the courage to tackle situations that threaten the lives or happiness of their friends. At the same time, Clovis must maintain his reputation as a bon vivant.” Most of this accomplished raconteuse’s stories include nature study; she selected subjects that could be found in any child’s backyard and breathed into them her own sense of wonder — Jocette the Junebug, Lizette Lizard, Dennis Dirt Dauber, the Curious Crapaud, to name a few.

Mary Alice lobbied for the preservation of French in Louisiana long before the advent of CODIFIL (Council for the Development of French Louisiana) for which she was an avid supporter. The first six books in the Clovis series were once translated into French at the Bi-Lingual Center of Alice Boucher School in Lafayette, and a few hardbound copies remain as evidence of the venture. Mary Alice also wrote a two-volume history of her native Acadia Parish, which is a definitive work on this rice-growing parish of southwest Louisiana. The first volume won the 1976 Louisiana Literary Award given annually by the Louisiana State Library Association to the author who makes the most significant contribution to Louisiana literature. She also edited a history of Church Point, Louisiana and Mercedes Vidrine’s cookbooks, Quelque Chose Piquante (something spicy), Quelque Chose de Doux (something sweet) and recipes that appeared In Vidrine’s “Eunice Demi-Tasse,” a column that formerly appeared in the Opelousas Daily World

Memorabilia about Mary Alice Fontenot has been placed in the “Women in Louisiana Collection” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She’s been titled everything from a Louisiana folk heroine to the Cajun ambassador for children of Louisiana. No doubt about it, Mary Alice Fontenot’s place in the genre of juvenile fiction in the South has been firmly established. French words, nature study, and a unique application of the Golden Rule remain the salient characteristics of her tales about swamp creatures.


For a more comprehensive essay about Mary Alice Fontenot, readers can still find my article about this memorable Louisiana woman in a used copy of Their Adventurous Will on amazon.com As I wrote in the beginning of this blog, my choice of Christmas gifts for children include Clovis Crawfish books, and I know several great-grandchildren who may be introduced to Cajun critters this Christmas.

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