Deep South in the United States: New Orleans, Mardi Gras, music, balconies, beignets: they all go together.
They each, along with many other things, form part of the story and history that threads through the deep south, much as the Mississippi River threads through the region.
There are the remains of plantations, legacies of slavery, stories Creole life in New Orleans and pirates in the bayous. There are parts of this long history of American deep south that are rarely seen and rarely heard.
One way to travel there and hear them is through imagination, through the stories told in novels.
Benjamin January proves a good guide through which to travel to and explore this history. Born enslaved in pre Civil War Louisiana, when first we meet him he’s the lead character in the book A Free Man of Color, which is what he has become. He has also lived in Paris, where he trained as a doctor.
That’s not a profession he can practice in the segregated society of the deep south in the 1830s, though, so when life calls him back to New Orleans, he makes his living primarily by his musical skills, playing piano for social events to which he’d never be invited, providing music for theater and opera performances, and teaching music to the children of Creole society.
January’s life evolves over the course of more than a dozen books in ways that give insight and offer questions about the deep south and the American west of the 1830s. He’s am intelligent man, educated and thoughtful, in a culture that doesn’t value such things in a Black man.
January is no distant intellectual, though. He spent the early years of his life enslaved, for one thing. He lives with that experience, and he lives as part of the Black community in New Orleans, with friends both enslaved and free. His mother is a placee, that is the mistress of rich white man, in an arrangement which was common in that time. He and his sister Olympe were born to their mother’s enslaved partner before she became a placee. Their younger half sister Dominique has herself become a placee and moves in that range of society. Ben works as an entertainer. Olympe has become a voodoo priestess.
What does ll this have to do with you as a traveler?
Through these and other characters in the series, you are able to travel back in time and see history, place, and race in ways you may not have considered. Whether you will travel the landscapes of these stories in geography, whether you have been to them before, or whether you visit only through imagination, you will have a deeper perspective. Reading this series is a useful way, too, to dream while you wait to travel later.
These books are not travel guides, of course. They are historical fiction, for one thing, and mystery stories, for another. There’s romance, too: Ben falls in love with and eventually marries Rose Vitrac, a mixed race woman who was at first schooled to be a palcee, but decided to follow a different path. She’s become a teacher, another profession not readily practiced by Blacks in the antebellum south.
While many of the books (there are eighteen at this writing) take place in New Orleans, you will also find the characters traveling to Colorado, Texas, Washington DC, Vicksburg, Haiti, Paris, and to the rural deep south countryside in plantation, enslaved communities, and wilderness
The characters’ varied backgrounds lead them into contact with all levels of life and into all sorts of places. For example
In the book Wet Grave, Benjamin and Rose find themselves out in the bayous, amid plot lines that touch on slave rebellions, leprosy, and pirates, including the life of the actual pirate from history, Jean Lafitte. None of that stops them from marrying at the end of the book.
In Die Upon a Kiss, it’s opera that focuses the plot, when members of a visiting Italian opera company are attacked. Ben and his friend Hannibal Sefton have been hired to provide music for the opera performances, and Ben is asked to investigate. Do the attacks have to do with a planned staging of Othello, with a central plot line of a Black/white couple?
In Crimson Angel Rose’s white half-brother is murdered. Family property in Haiti is at stake and so is Rose’s life, it turns out, in a story that moves from New Orleans to rural Louisiana to Cuba to Haiti.
In Sold Down the River, Ben must go undercover at a sugar plantation to solve a mysterious happenings that put the enslaved people at serious and unexpected risk. This puts his own freedom in jeopardy and brings back troubling memories of his childhood in slavery. There are vivid stories of what sugar production involved in the 1830s and a complex set of storylines to unravel.
Fever Season deals with life during the yellow fever Epidemic; Lady of Perdition finds Ben and Hannibal Sefton (in their sometimes disguise of enslaved person and slaveholder) out in what was known as the Slaveholders’ Republic of Texas seeking to find a young free woman of color who may have been sold into slavery and along the way finding more mystery; in The Drinking Gourd, while working to provide music for a traveling minstrel show in Mississippi, Ben finds himself needed as both doctor and detective by people involved with the underground railroad which helped enslaved people run toward freedom.
There are many more stories in this series, with complex and satisfying story lines concerning characters you come to care about. The author, Barbara Hambly, lived in New Orleans for some years. She knows the territory and how to write about it. The Benjamin January series makes a good and thought provoking way to learn about the deep south, about history, and to dream now while waiting to travel later.
Prefer to read about history another way? Take a look at this story about the Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook where the recipes come with generous helpings of history and some fine photography, as well.
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