“…The old truck was parked in front of the courthouse, and we watched them all pile in. Candy waved goodbye to them. I felt her other hand against me, searching for my hand; then I felt her squeezing my fingers.”
—Ernest Gaines, from “A Gathering of Old Men.”
I tried to tell him why I was driving two and half hours from Sterlington, Louisiana to Natchitoches where Ernest Gaines was speaking at Northwestern State University on December 10. My friend has musical roots. “He’s like the B.B. King of fiction writing…and besides it’s a long drive to get to anywhere from Sterlington.”
I wasn’t going to miss this talk from one of the most celebrated fiction writers of a generation. Admittedly, it was more like a three-hour ride. First I had to fill up with gas, stop to find a rest room, and then parking. Finally, I entered the ballroom of the Friedman Student Union a few minutes before the event was scheduled to begin. The room was filled with a diverse audience, many of them students, teachers, and interested parties like myself who had come to honor this master storyteller.
There were several former Poet Laureates of Louisiana in the house including Julie Kane, professor at Northwestern State who introduced Darrell Bourque, also a former Laureate. He took the next twenty minutes to reel off Gaines’ astounding life and accomplishments. None of it was boring. Bourque currently serves on the board of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where Gaines has been a Writer-in-Residence since 1983.
Bourque said, “He knows a history unknown in history books.”
Lest you are unfamiliar with his work, here’s a very quick Gaines summary.
Born in 1933 on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish near New Roads, Louisiana, Gaines based his award-winning novels on the African American experience in the rural South. His works include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993), both later produced as award-winning films. Ernest Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal of the United States by President Bill Clinton, and the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. His work has been translated into fifteen languages and is required reading in all French high schools where he is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Awesome? You bet.
Following Bourque’s introduction, Gaines read from a new and (yet) unpublished memoir entitled “The Man Who Whipped Children” about a courtroom shooting and its subsequent repercussions. At eighty years old, he was a study in brown from the leather chair where he sat wrapped in a brown jacket, gold knit shirt and a beret of the same color tipped slightly to the right and speaking with a rough gargle in his voice that he occasionally stoked with water.
When asked during the question and answer period about his greatest influences, he said, “Everything. If someone tells a story or a joke that’s well done, I learn from that. I learn from novels, paintings, and musicians, from Charles Schultz. I learn from everything that’s well done.”
After the reading, it sadly was time to go. After twenty minutes of hunting for my car, I found it parked not far from the Police Station where I was going to ask for location assistance. I passed by the Christmas lights of Natchitoches along the Cane River Lake that I imagined looked like Ernest Gaines’ heart lit with fantastic colors and shapes.