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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 April 2010

And then came Laura

Recently I was in New Orleans for a week of brainstorming, writing, frozen cocktails, beignet, and crab cakes (if you haven’t had the crab cakes at Oceana on Conti, you haven’t really had a crab cake IMO). As my crit partners and I sucked down the tref (hello, we found a bacon and oyster sandwich at a place called Cochon) we also managed to squeeze in a day of research by visiting a couple of plantations: Oak Alley and Laura.

Oak Alley was worth going to for the trees alone (top pic). An alley of 28 three-hundred year old trees is an impressive sight indeed. Unfortunately, the tour of the house was given by a woman who seemed to be doing an impression of the Spanish Infanta from Black Adder, and she actually said said “The slaves on Oak Alley were happy and very well treated.” leading me and the one African American on the tour to exchange horrified looks and quickly duck out.

And then came Laura (bottom pic) . . . I’ve been on a lot of house tours, all over the world. Laura Plantation, at least in the hands of Norman Marmillion, is hands-down the best house tour I’ve ever been on. Between his charming Creole accent, his passion for the Creole life, and his deep knowledge of the history of the plantation, I was basically in love with both Norman and the plantation itself. It helps, of course, that he’s the editor of the plantation’s memoir: Memories of The Old Plantation Home (and yes, I bought it, and am really looking forward to reading it).

He tells an uncompromising and unsentimental story of plantation run by women generation after generation: Women who died cursing the North and screaming that their house couldn’t be bombed because their husband fought with General Washington; women who shouldered aside husbands and brothers and made their plantation a roaring success in the teeth of everyone around them; women who were ruthless enough to sell off their son’s African mistress and their child to separate owners (this was one case where a man in the family stood up and asserted themselves, buying them back on the spot).

Norman doesn’t hold back when telling it like it was (no happy slaves here). You get the branded, the runners, the children working all day in the fields and kitchens, even the story of the mistress nearly sold off, who begged after the Civil War to be allowed to serve first her lover’s wife and then his sister (regardless of how their mother had treated her, she clearly considered them family).

Laura also has a literary claim to fame: The stories of Br'er Rabbit, were recorded in its slave cabins by Alcée Fortier in 1894 (and Fats Domino was born there, for those who prefer a musical legend).

Oh, and they make the best pralines I’ve ever had (which sadly seem to be the one thing you can’t order online from their shop, unlike a facsimile of Br’er Rabbit or the wonderful memoir of Laura Locoul Gore, the last president of the plantation).

Do you enjoy house tours? Have you ever found one you wanted to go back to again and again?

10 Comments:

Anonymous BPfeiffer said...

We did tours of the same two houses a couple of years ago (including spending a night at a cottage on the grounds of Oak Alley.) I thought the history behind the Laura plantation to be fascinating - it was a great story of family dynamics and dysfunction as well as a glimpse into history. I also found it interesting to hear about the differences in slave law between the Spanish and the French.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I thought the cottages at Oak Alley would make a wonderful setting for a writers retreat.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the fabulous glimpse into your New Orleans trip, Kalen! I love old houses. I have ever since I was a young child. Touring old houses was always a favorite thing to do on family trips--we went through a bunch of houses and castles on a my first trip to Britain when I was six. Even then I liked imaging stories about the people who lived there. The next time I go to Scotland, I particularly want to go back to Drum Castle and Dunrobin, the two houses I based my fictional Dunmykel on. And right now I'm wishing I could go back to Apsley House, which I visited on my most recent trip to London, because the book I'm starting is set in Brussels at the time of Waterloo. I'm particularly wishing I'd bought more books at the gift shop...

I went to New Orleans a few years ago with my friend Penny whose family is there. We visited several houses, but not Oak Alley or Laura.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Kalen, I've been wanting to do a Louisiana plantation tour for years; and every time I visit N'awlins -- even as recently as last May, we somehow never got to it. I spent too much time eating and drinking and listening to great music. I just love N.O.

In 2007, I did visit a former rice plantation in South Carolina a few miles outside of Charleston and was appalled at how unknowledgeable the docents were. They shooed visitors through like it was a conveyor belt, couldn't answer any questions involving details about the 18th c. home furnishings we were looking at, and wouldn't let you go back into a room they'd sped you through for a second look. It was immensely disappointing.

I seem to remember an excellent house tour of an 18th c. town house (c. 1795, I think) in Dublin, which made for terrific research for my historical fiction.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I want to go back to Laura and pay whatever it costs for a private tour (just me and mine). I'm thinking it would be around $500, and the basic tour we got was so good I'd be willing to pay that for a in-depth one.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't done a lot of house tours, but a particularly memorable one was a chateau in Burgundy. Michael and I got there late; the tour guide told us we could trail along behind the main group for free. Whereupon we were treated to the edifying spectacle of more than one member of the legit tour group chipping little bits off the moldings and even some of the furniture.

I love New Orleans too, though -- and if you ever set up the Laura super-tour, count me in!

3:27 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

The Easy is one of my favorite places on earth and was a second home to my husband and myself when he did his internship at the VA hospital in Biloxi.

We did several tours of French Quarter homes, but never made it out to the plantations in Louisiana.

The city of Eutaw in Alabama has one of the largest number of period homes in any Alabama country. One home, which boasts a tie to Mary Todd Lincoln, is Kirkwood. It was bought and restored by a retired attorney and his wife 30 years ago. I sang a recital on the balcony of that grand old home with an orchestra on the terrace below when they had the open house to celebrate the restoration.

The real shame is that while many homes are bought and restored, many others are left to fall into ruins.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Kalen - The first historic home tour I went on was in Virginia City. It still had its original furnishings - mainly because the ground underneath was so fragile from all the silver mines, nobody was allowed to disturb anything else. (As I recall, only 4 tourists were allowed inside at a time.)

Carlisle House in Alexandria was the second historic home I toured. It overlooks the Potomac River and has fascinating links to Harvard and the Lee family. I loved it, especially since the terrace was set for a historic wedding reception.

My ambition is to tour the James River plantations. Leisurely.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The real shame is that while many homes are bought and restored, many others are left to fall into ruins.

I agree, which is why it's always so wonderful to see them when they've been saved and cherished. During the drive to the plantations, the driver pointed out other houses that were being refurbished, which was lovely to see.

6:32 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I love touring old houses, forts, castles, and other buildings. They bring the history of the area and time to life (if done well). We live about 65 miles from The Biltmore in NC. It is quite an experience. Some places we have visited several times. There are several historic homes, Sycamore Shoals Park with a restored fort, President Andrew Johnson's home and workplace and new uses for oler buildings (our library is in a 1925 train station). When we travel, we always find out what restored sites are available and make sure we visit at least some of them.
Laura Plantation has been on my list to visit for years. I just need to get to New Orleans.

8:57 PM  

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