A crawfish boat at rest on the edge of a rice field, with crawfish traps lined up in the background.
We’ve all known people who start stories fairly far back, so they can tell the parts they like best:
“How did you meet your wife?”
“Well, my grandmother was born in Ville Platte…”
John Laudun is a fair bit like that with The Amazing Crawfish Boat (University Press of Mississippi), his unhurried history of the industry’s amphibious vessel. For example, to explain crawfish boats, you have to explain crawfish fisheries, which are often also rice fields, and, Laudun says, did you know that rice arrived in the Americas in 1685, when a ship going from Madagascar to Europe got caught in a hurricane and blown to Charleston? It took me a while to get used to this style—not really tangential but very “ankle-bone-connected-to-the-leg-bone”—but once I did, I came to enjoy it. Laudun is a thoughtful and knowledgeable writer, and expecting him to hurry up and get to the boats is like asking, “Is this going to be on the test?” Be patient; he actually makes silt interesting.
Besides, he does get to the boats. These little crafts, heirs to the old Cajun swamp-going boats but with the benefit of generations of creativity and modern materials, are constructed both to glide along the top of a flooded field and to ride easily along dry roads, even going along the side of the highway toward the next crawfish field. No two of these boats are exactly alike because they’re not mass-produced in factories. Instead, they’re just made in the area where they’re needed by a handful of men who know how to build machines. History runs through these boats’ origins: some of these craftsmen were inspired by boats they saw in Vietnam, some learned engineering and metalwork working in the ‘80s oil boom, and all had some connection to the farms and fields of South Louisiana, where “dry land” is as often as not a figure of speech. The stories of the individual craftsmen are intertwined and overlapping, and Laudun writes of these various persons with admiration and affection.
Laudun is a thoughtful and knowledgeable writer, and expecting him to hurry up and get to the boats is like asking, “Is this going to be on the test?” Be patient; he actually makes silt interesting.
As do most people who write about South Louisiana, Laudun reflects on what this unusual landscape means and how it affects the people who live there. He argues that Louisianans think about land and water differently, citing a study in which it was “proven” that pictures of meadows reassured people and that pictures of swamps unnerved them—this based on a study of largely white urban dwellers from the northeast, many of whom are lovely people but who do not contain among themselves the whole of human experience. Instead, to Laudun, people accustomed to living in a space where the land gradually trails off into the water don’t divide the world into “land” and “water” as completely discrete, damned-and-saved opposites.
Of course people used to say voiture, the old French word for “carriage” that now means “car,” to refer to their boats. Of course they embraced crops like rice and crawfish that could thrive in watery fields that would kill wheat. Of course they told fairy tales about a magical boat that moved on land as well as on water—and when they figured out how, they built them. The flooded fields and the areas around them together make up the environment, and you need to move freely within that space to use it effectively. This idea of water as a connecting space instead of a boundary will be familiar to people who love history, who can list dozens of examples of bodies of water connecting people and unifying cultures; but it’s a fresh and interesting angle to apply it to the watery patchwork of rural Louisiana.
I do wish The Amazing Crawfish Boat had more diagrams. The sections dealing with how the actual boats work were the most difficult for me. Granted, I’m the kind of person who refers to every part of an engine as a “thing,” but a little more verbal hand-holding through the mechanical aspects would have made a book I enjoyed into a book I really, really enjoyed. Still, it’s a great read, especially if you’re willing to give rein to Laudun as he weaves the history, anthropology, science, and mechanics into a story that could almost be its own fairy tale: There was a place that wasn’t really water or land, but the people who lived there loved this. They went to other places, they learned new things, and they made boats that were almost magic because they could move on the land and the water both. This particular fairy tale has the best ending of them all: everyone gets to have crawfish.
The Amazing Crawfish Boat
by John Laudun
240 pages (approx.). $30. University Press of Mississippi.
Purchase the book at upress.state.ms.us.