This historical fiction novel explores the complexities and atrocities of antebellum New Orleans on a struggling sugar plantation, Le Petite Cottage. It’s disturbing and grand, horrifying, and eye-opening. It’s one thing to suggest that slavery is atrocious and it’s another to show how slavery stripped human beings of their dignity and self. The violence and sexual content are difficult to read but necessary at the same time. The realities of chattel slavery cannot be censored or glossed over. Rita Williams-Garcia weaves a cast of characters together revealing the many layers that exist between White plantation owners and the people they enslave. Matriarch Madame Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert dreams of her glory days in the French royal court. She was taken from France as a child and married off to a plantation owner. She’s arrogant, shrewd, entitled, and thrives on class and racial distinction. Her adult son, Lucien, is equally foul, and they enjoy battling each other for superiority. He tries desperately and pathetically to launch Le Petite Cottage out of debt when he’s not too busy preying on slave women. While Williams-Garcia exposes the Guilbert family’s truly depraved qualities, she also juxtaposes those against painful and tragic events that make them empathetically human. She paints them in dappled shades of darks and lights that are uniquely emotional for readers. Madame Sylvie is both fragile and jagged as her slave servant, Thisbe, wipes her, dresses her, and learns that Madame named her after Marie Antoinette’s dog. Williams-Garcia is a master at ushering the reader to both hate and feel pity for Madame Sylvie as the wretched creature’s big sweeping desire is to sit for a portrait so she can hang onto the last scrap of her legacy. Her grandson and heir to Le Petite Cottage, Byron, lives a double life as a West Point cadet, madly in love with his best friend, Pierce. Lucien does his best to force Pierce to “be a man.” Thisbe is a major character, and although she’s Madame’s personal house slave, isolated from her family day and night, she’s ostracized for having it easier when that’s anything but accurate. Williams-Garcia shows the complex layers of emotion that exist between slaves as they are pitted against one another for favor and survival; the unspoken rules on “how to act” when Whites are around serve as a uniting element. Thisbe “knows her place,” but she’s sharper than Madame Sylvie. She holds her ground, and when Madame Sylvie is at her weakest, Thisbe makes a bold move. A Sitting in St. James is epic, and the tangled emotional impact is jarring. A great book makes you feel, but an epic book makes you question your feelings. This one will sit with me for a long time.
Ahhh New Orleans, how I love you. This was my second time visiting this city, and it's just as glorious as I remember. Is the partying and rows of churning, syrupy drink mixers all that NOLA has to offer? Hell to the N.O. Stumbling down Bourbon is hilarious and a rite of passage for first-timers but there is so much more to this intoxicating, culture and history-rich place. Absolutely do Bourbon but venture beyond if you have the time. Both of my trips here were short, and I couldn't see nearly as much as I wanted. I admit I spent more time on the party street than I probably needed to, but with that said, I still got a little beyond the Bourbon black hole.
Menu Pages: Eats and Drinks
If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one thing to drink, it would be this frozen cup of heaven and not water. Erin Rose always has friendly bartenders, terrible bathrooms where your knees scrape the door as you squat over the filthy toilet, and a collection of bizarre bar decorations that will keep you laughing and entertained for hours.
Molly's at the Market [French Quarter]
Molly's also has the frozen Irish coffee nectar of the gods and is basically a larger version of Erin Rose. We loved Molly's because they had tables and a little more room to sit with a group. They also have a few stools under an open window that looks out on Decatur and is a perfect spot to people watch, make friends, and take in the NOLA vibe.
Central Grocery [French Quarter]
The muffuletta is a thing to behold. We've eaten this at other places but no one does it like Central Grocery. This sandwich is a big, round beast filled with sliced meats and an olive spread. I don't even like olives. Why would I try this? The feel of this tiny grocery store packed with people waiting in line made me forget my hatred of those little green ovals. I love the crowded lunch counter set-up in the back of the store and eating the muffuletta in-house is part of the appeal.
Cafe du Monde [French Quarter]
Everyone goes nuts for this place because of the beignets, but they're really just ok. It's a fried, puffy donut with powdered sugar on it. We tried them, and they were fine but nothing I'd rave about. The nice thing about Cafe du Monde is that it's open 24 hours and has a really big outdoor eating area.
Napoleon House [French Quarter]
Our first trip to New Orleans was in July, and we were not prepared for the heat. It's the kind of thick heat that makes you sweat through your clothes as soon as you step outside. We stopped at the Napoleon House to find some air conditioning and ended up loving their delicious Pimm's Cup. It's a gin-based liqueur drink with a cucumber garnish, and it's very refreshing. The historical elements of this place are worth taking in.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Located in the Garden District, this cemetery is one of the few that allows visitors in without a tour guide. As of September 2019, the cemetery has been closed, and the sign on the gate says it's a temporary closure for maintenance, but I wouldn't be surprised if they start requiring tour guides for this location as well.
I was lucky to see this on my first trip and found it incredibly fascinating. The dead are revered in above ground tombs. Many are decorated with beads and other Big Easy style decorations. I found myself wandering around in here for so long, taking pictures, and taking it all in that I ended up having a little bit of heat stroke. We took the trolley here on a $3 day pass and just walked right in and strolled around. It's a beautiful representation of the culture, history, vibrant style, and haunting richness of New Orleans as a whole. New Orleans is a feeling, and while it may sound strange, I felt it the most in this place.
New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum [French Quarter]
We went here mainly because it was pouring, and we needed a place to get out of the rain. This could be fun with kids but if you're going as a couple, I'd probably advise you to skip it and spend your money elsewhere. We paid around $14 for entry and spent maybe ten minutes walking through the rooms. It was interesting to learn about the history of voodoo, but this is clearly a tourist trap. Everything was dank, dark, and dusty. With that said, I would feel like I missed something without some kind of intro to the history of voodoo. I always find something to enjoy about each place we visit so my takeaway here is that they surprisingly allow you to take pictures, and they are pretty cool to look back at. It was like a musty, old art installation from another era.
Bourbon Street [French Quarter]
Bourbon is a blur of weirdness, nutty people-watching, endless bars, and general mayhem. It's fun to walk through at all times day and night with varying, bizarre results. We saw a naked guy getting arrested one night (he somehow managed to keep his black dress socks on) and then one block later saw a dude dressed as Homer Simpson plopped on top of a trash can. Further toward Frenchmen, we saw an impromptu dance party with one lone participant who stopped four-way traffic to bust it out for a good 8 minutes. Everyone just patiently let him do his thing and then carried on after he tired out. It's hilarious and fascinating but gets old after a few passes through.
Appendix: A Hodge Podge
Old Absinthe House - This place is historic, dark, and atmospheric. There are business cards plastered all over the walls which makes for a cool, haphazard vibe. We tried the New Orleans signature drink, the Sazerac, here. It was awful and tasted like I imagine gasoline would taste. This is no knock on the Absinthe House - just not a fan of rye whiskey and bitters anywhere.
Pat O'Brien's - Get an iconic Hurricane here, and check out the dueling piano bar.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar - Although this was our least favorite place in the Quarter, it is notable as one of the oldest operating bars in Louisiana. Bartenders were not the slightest bit friendly here, and the frozen drink machines snuggled against the aging wood beams of the bar kind of ruin the feel of the whole place.
French Market - open-air market with tons of shopping for souvenirs. I also had a really good fresh fruit smoothie at one of the food stalls.
Frenchmen Street - We spent a lot of our time here listening to live music. There are so many incredibly chill places that have music just rolling out the door and calling you inside. Check out The Maison, The Spotted Cat Music Club, Cafe Negril, and Blue Nile.
Bakery Bar - This place is genius. They have brunch and savory food choices as well, but the draw for me is the dessert selection paired with a full bar. We stumbled upon this place by accident while we were just wandering around, and it was one of our favs.
Magazine Street - This street runs through more than just the Garden District, but there are so many great places to shop and stop for drinks, it makes your head spin.
Postscript: What I Missed
There are oodles of places that I didn't get to and wish I had. These are just a few on my list for next time.
Willie Mae's Scotch House - Every single Lyft driver we had recommended Willie Mae's for the fried chicken. One driver even admitted using Willie Mae's chicken for family meals and passing it off as her own because she hates to cook.
Bacchanal Wine - This place looks to have a very fun backyard party feel.
Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge - dive bar
Audubon Park and the Tree of Life
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 - I think this is where Nicholas Cage has a pyramid tomb waiting for him to occupy. Creeptastic!
The connection here can't be any simpler. This a young adult historical fiction set in New Orleans, specifically in the French Quarter.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This might be my favorite Sepetys book yet. I adore New Orleans - the culture, the style, the music and laid-back atmosphere. It's all intoxicating. This book examines the dark underbelly of a young girl's life in the French Quarter during the 1950s as the daughter of a prostitute. Josie Moraine was named after a brothel madam, and all she wants to do is escape the sweltering oppression of her Big Easy life and go to college. Jo has grit and manages to avoid her destiny as a working girl by steering clear of trouble and spending her time running a bookstore with her best friend Patrick. She also flits in and out of the brothel as a housekeeper. Jo's selfish mother, Louise, gets mixed up with men in the mafia and puts Jo's safety and future in danger. Jo is guided by some unlikely characters including her stand-in mother, Willie, brothel madam and gruff matriarch. Willie is abrasive but clearly loves Jo and teaches her that sometimes the family you choose can be just what you need to help you find yourself. I absolutely savored the characterization in this book. Cokie is the kind-hearted cab driver and father figure in Jo's life. Sadie is the mute cook and laundress who clearly looks after Jo as well. All of the girls at the brothel are interesting characters that you can only grow to love. I often find myself drawn to historical fiction, and this young adult book is one of the best in the genre that I've read in a while.
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