From Where I Sit – The Levee

In February I had the good fortune to visit Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Roy was there as part of a contingent from Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, meeting with experts and touring similar facilities. While he put in full days of work, I was free to tour the sites.

One of the places I visited was Cottonwood Books on Perkins Road. Because of its typically crowded style (like most unfamiliar used bookstores), it is not a place you can hurry through. And while another wife, Carolyn, and I looked around, I was very cognizant of dear, patient Wayne, another delegate’s husband (and our amenable driver), who was sitting in the rental car reading a travel guide. It was my request to go there and I didn’t want to push my luck. So I hurried and got focused.

The Cottonwood carries a mix of new, old, and rare books. I asked the owner if there was a definitive title that would be a good souvenir of my trip. In hindsight, that was a loaded, hopeless, and silly question. Did I want one of the dozens of books written about assassinated Governor Huey Long, who left Louisiana forever changed by his public service? Or how about one of many on the majestic old plantations? Maybe an illustrated one covering the flora and fauna of the state? Or perhaps one about cemeteries, Mardi Gras, Cajun cuisine, or countless other subjects.

As it turns out, I bought a book written by the bookseller’s friend and fellow Baton Rouge resident, Malcolm Shuman. The novel, The Levee, is based on the true story of a murder that took place more than 50 years ago.

While I’m only a third of the way through the book, I love it. I find myself savouring it rather than rushing headlong through it. I love a good whodunit as much as the next person, and Shuman’s approach is unique. We hear the narrator’s voice alternate between that of the teenage boy he was at the time of the teacher’s death and him at age 63 as he struggles to put a nightmare to rest.

Best of all, however, is the way the book takes me back to my short visit to the area. It reminds me of landmarks and place names. I can feel the atmosphere. I remember the low-hanging fog some mornings. I toured a plantation and know what an alley of live oaks looks like. I walked along the levee behind the Hilton. I know how, even so many years after his death, people still have affection for Huey Long. All of these specific, accurate details enrich the experience of reading this book and add to the author’s credibility. Surely, if he got those details right, I can trust him with others that I am less familiar with.

Which brings me to the profound question: does reading enhance the travel experience, or does travel enhance the reading experience? With a great book in hand, it doesn’t matter at all, from where I sit.

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