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A HOUSE FOR ELIZA

1893 - 1958

 

What is the real story of the Cajuns? This sensitive and well-written novel goes beyond the stereotypes given the Cajuns by today’s media, and tells the true story of a Cajun family living on a fine, 2000-acre plantation in Lafayette, Louisiana in the late 1800s. Through the eyes of Eliza Landry Daigle, you will see what it was like to raise a family of 17 children during two World Wars and the Great Depression, and the interaction with the freed slaves who helped in the home and the fields. One of their children was Fr. Jules Daigle, who wrote “A Dictionary of the Cajun Language.”

 

Rich in description of a real-life Cajun family, the novel gives the reader a chance to experience “jumping the broomstick” at a Cajun wedding, the taste and smells of a boucherie, picking cotton by the light of a full moon, Papa Noel and the bonfires along the Vermilion River, the Pinhook bridge and how it got its name, early schools of Lafayette, and the little Chapel of St. John which became a cathedral.

 

Today, the house of Eliza and Oscar Daigle is situated on Convent Street, and is featured in the Lafayette Preservation Society’s “Tour of Lafayette.”

 

This novel is definitely for the reader who enjoys a good story about a real-life Cajun family.

 

Review excerpts from back cover:

“...a touching story told well. It brought a chuckle here, a tear there, throughout reflecting a vanishing culture once held together by faith, family, and a belief in the bounty of land and sea. It is the story of a sturdy, self-reliant people who did indeed live by the simple values depicted

in the lives of Oscar and Eliza Landry. ”

—Jim H. Bradshaw, Journalist, who has observed and written about the culture and

history of south Louisiana for more than fifty years

 

“In Louisiana history, the period between the end of Reconstruction (1877) and the beginning of World War II (1941) remains largely unexplored by historians. Works like A House for Eliza provide critical insight into daily life during this period.”

—Carl A. Brasseaux, Author of Acadian To Cajun: Transformation Of A People

 

“If you enjoy a book that brings the personalities, conflicts, joys and sorrows of a group of unique and often misunderstood Cajun people to every page, this book is for you.”

—John Breaux, Former United States Congressman and Senator from Louisiana

 

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Description

 

There is a misconception that all the Acadians, who were exiled from Nova Scotia in 1755 and migrated to Louisiana, were poor farmers and trappers. The truth is, a group of these Acadians were plantation owners. This novel is the real story of the “Cajuns” of Louisiana.

Eliza Landry lives the comfortable life of an upper, middle class Acadian family in southwest Louisiana. Raised in a similar manner, Eliza’s mother kept her children apart from freed slaves, who she deems are not suitable.

Oscar Daigle is from a different background and is the owner of a large plantation that depends on freed slaves to run the plantation.

When Oscar asks Eliza to marry him, her mother disapproves, saying plantation life will mean an association with the wrong people. Determined to marry, Eliza insists Oscar would not put her in a place where she would be unhappy.

After the wedding in 1893, Oscar brings Eliza to the house he has built for her on the plantation. She meets the workers and soon realizes she could never hold herself “apart” from them. Her strong will makes her more determined to prove her mother wrong.

During the next twenty-seven years Eliza gives birth to sixteen children. In 1929, The Great Depression forces Oscar to sell parts of the plantation in order to provide the necessities. Shortly after the depression, Oscar dies. Most of the children have families now, and many of the workers have left the plantation. She raised children who became part of The Greatest Generation. They lived through two world wars, numerous illnesses, tragedies, and monumental discoveries. They never once lost their faith in God or in one another.

 

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Synopsis

 

Part One   1893

 

From the beginning Eliza’s mother, Idea Landry disapproves of her daughter’s marriage to Oscar Daigle and the association it will bring with freed slaves who are not like Eliza and never will be. Eliza lives the comfortable life of an upper, middle class Acadian family in southwest Louisiana. Eliza’s mother was raised in a similar situation and has kept her children apart from the common workers who were descendants of freed slaves and not suitable to be around her children, except as servants.

Oscar Daigle is from a very different background. He was married before and his wife died giving birth to a daughter named Regina. He is the owner of a large plantation which depends on black workers who are descendants of freed slaves not only to run the plantation, but also to harvest the crops. He has provided these workers with homes where they are allowed to grow gardens and gather moss to sell. As the master of the plantation he also pays his workers well and makes certain they receive medical care.  

 At first Oscar does not know about the dilemma facing Eliza and her mother’s prediction that Eliza will never be happy living on a plantation. As the time for the marriage approaches, Eliza argues with her mother saying Oscar will not put her in a place where she will be unhappy.

After the wedding, Oscar brings Eliza to the house he has built for her on the plantation, which he names Eagle Crest. Eliza meets the workers one by one: Souri the housekeeper, whose simple wisdom endears her to Eliza right away; Souri¹s father Joseph, who is the foreman of the plantation and Oscar’s best friend; and Souri’s mother Isabel who longs to leave her plantation life but doesn’t know how.

During those first days at Eagle Crest, Eliza feels overwhelmed. There is so much she doesn’t know about her new life, and there are other challenges also. Her fear of bad weather surfaces, fueled by memories of her mother gathering all of the children together in the center of the house during a storm and praying loudly. Oscar’s mother Leocade is considered a strong woman who runs an even larger plantation alone. Eliza feels she must match these qualities.

 Soon, Eliza understands what it means to own a plantation and be responsible for the lives of other people. She is content to enjoy her new life and often turns to her faith. Her strong will makes her more determined to prove her mother wrong.

 

Part Two

Eliza is pregnant with her first child, which brings another dilemma. What will she tell the new child about Regina? Oscar and Eliza both agree to tell Regina the truth about her mother when she seems ready.

In six short years Eliza gives birth four more times. Regina is older now and attending a boarding school in the city of Lafayette. She learns from a fellow student that her natural mother died giving birth to her. When Regina confronts her parents, both Oscar and Eliza are horrified and blame themselves for waiting so long to tell her. Regina decides her brothers and sisters should be told the truth later, but she asks that one sibling be trusted with the secret for now.

As Eliza learns about plantation life she becomes more secure. The night she discovers wood thieves on the front porch she does not hesitate to grab Oscar’s loaded rifle and fire several shots at the thieves. Although Eliza succeeds in saving the firewood she becomes frightened at the danger.

During the years that follow Eliza gives birth to eleven more children. And while the size of the family is not unusual for the times, the events of the world are most unusual and influence the lives of Oscar and Eliza, as well as the children, in a dramatic way.

The sudden death of Oscar’s mother, Leocade, changes his life forever. To him she was a strong, free-spirited woman who drew admiration from all those who knew and loved her. Oscar understands his mother’s life now. There was no time for softness and tears.  After the death of Oscar’s father  she had no choice but to become both mother and father to Oscar and his four brothers.

 Now Eliza is forty-five years old and she gives birth to her last child. During all of her pregnancies the faithful mulatto midwife NaNoot has kept watch. NaNoot’s mother was a white woman and Eliza often compares that family secret to Regina’s secret. When NaNoot dies Eliza realizes it didn’t matter that NaNoot was half white, she was still buried in the colored cemetery.

Eliza understands why her mother taught her to be afraid of the workers. Idea knew Eliza would love the people who loved her, even though her skin was white, and a part of Eliza would remain forever with the workers of Eagle Crest.

 

The Depression Years

At first the stock market crash of 1929 seems far away from Oscar and Eliza. Gradually, the panic up north spreads south. Eliza fears the worst.

Oscar says they will not lose everything because they have land and houses. The crops will bring only a little money, he explains, and they must hold on to as much as possible so they will have enough to eat. The workers don’t need to be paid, Oscar says, they will also live off the land if they stay with the plantation.

As the depression deepens banks close and the city declares bankruptcy. Oscar and Eliza decide not to discuss the depression in front of the children, and to the outside world the Daigle household seems normal. During these years the older children are working and they instinctively help their parents by giving them money and repairing the house. The girls readily accept weddings at home and church-going dresses instead of elaborate bridal gowns.

By the mid-thirties the New Deal policy is underway and men find work paving the roads. One such road goes through the middle of Oscar’s plantation and he receives requests to sell some of the land. When he realizes he can make more money selling land than he can farming, he divides a part of the plantation into small tracts. Eliza argues with Oscar, saying he can’t sell Eagle Crest because it is their only hope for the future. Oscar replies without money they have no future. A deep sadness settles in Eliza’s heart. Memories of the plantation are all she had left.

Once the depression is over, the plantation awakes from its long sleep. All of the workers return except one. Oscar’s friend Joseph has passed away and, for Oscar the connection between the past and the present is lost forever.

By the time Oscar dies he has fathered seventeen children. His last wish is that Eliza gives each of the children a piece of Eagle Crest.

Eventually the years redefine the things which are important to Eliza. She turns now to her children and their families and to the church, which she visits every day.

 

A HOUSE FOR ELIZA
The Real Story of the Cajuns

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