I’ve been an Ernest J. Gaines fanatic since I fell in love with his words when reading A Gathering of Old Men sometime in my early 20s. Since I’ve been on a mission to read a lot of the lesser known works by my favorite authors, I picked up Catherine Carmier, Gaines’ first published novel (1964).
It is the 1960s and son of the south, Jackson Guerin, returns to Louisiana to visit the aunt who raised him. Jackson has spent some time being educated in San Francisco. He returns to the country under the impression that he will stay and teach, but once he arrives, he realizes that his education and aspirations make it hard to fit in with the slow moving, hard laboring, church going folks that he grew up with. Except for Catherine Carmier. Catherine is a beauty, but her Creole heritage makes her off limits to Jackson, and any other man that is interested, for her father Raoul has decided that she is forever bound to him and will literally fight any man to the death for her honor. Jackson is so enamored with Catherine that he is willing to risk it all to get her to leave with him. But does Catherine love Jackson enough to leave her family behind for him?
Gaines is said to have written a novel in his teenaged years that was rejected by publishers. He was so distraught that he burned the manuscript. This story is said to be the story that he burned, having decided to re-write it from scratch after he attended college. Can you imagine re-writing an entire book?
In reading this book, it is obvious that Catherine Carmier is a first novel, not as polished and riveting as Gaines’ later work. But it is still a good story focusing on issues within southern communities that many may night be familiar with: creole separatism and colorism, and the prodigal son being too learned to fit in with his family. It is also somewhat dramatic, at some points reminding me of a daytime soap opera.
I’d recommend this novel to fans of Gaines’ writing and those who are interested in old school southern literature.