Set in pre-Katrina-ravaged Louisiana, this novel speaks of another turbulent time: the great flood of 1927, when the Mississippi River overflowed the levees, creating massive damage to the property of the disenfranchised. Prior to the flood, there are rumblings about the danger to the levees, but such is the nature of business and the overreaching power of the wealthy that the threats are either ignored or seriously downplayed by those who control both finance and politics.
In order to divert the Big Muddy from New Orleans, saving the more prosperous city in lieu of the poorer and less industrialized areas, Cypress Parish is marked for demolition.
The sad story of Cypress Parish is told by the protagonist, Louis Proby, from the perspective of the naiveté of young manhood.
At seventeen, everything is still ahead for Louis; a logger, Louis’ father, William, is a company town superintendent steadily advancing his family’s fortunes. Now an elderly man waiting for the full force of Katrina to strike, Louis reminisces about William, a man who is a strict taskmaster and a fair manager, hardened by necessity by the occasional violence of the industry and the choices he must make in that capacity.
Groomed to become a physician, Louis prefers the natural sciences, poring over the works of Pliny, chronicling the diversity of nature that surrounds him - a dutiful son in love with learning for its own sake, aware of the first pangs of true intimacy with a young woman he will never see again after the flood. Louis observes more of the world as a driver for a local businessman, introduced in New Orleans to the entrepreneurs that flock to the city, as well as the modern women with bobbed hair who flaunt their new freedoms.
As the Big Muddy rises and the flood threatens, the simple lives of many families are swept away by the rising tide, the levees unable to stave off the ravages of nature’s excess and man’s intemperate planning. In the end, the fatal decision is made, Cypress Parish dynamited, inundated with flood water, all of Louis’ childhood memories submerged in a watery grave.
Retelling his youth, Louis describes a heartwarming childhood, the difficulties of white and black existence in segregated 1927 Louisiana and the occasional case of leprosy that continues to plague the area. Against the natural beauty of his environment on the banks of the Mississippi, Louis’ first brush with love and the pull of family responsibility force him into painful but unavoidable choices.
Capturing the particular nostalgia with which the elderly remember the distant days of youth, the aging Louis sustains an inchoate desire for that which no longer exists while awaiting another of nature’s catastrophes. The same harsh societal restrictions continue to mar the image of a simpler America, albeit softened by memory.