Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Bayou Magic is a magical realism book with strong Creole roots and African folklore taking place in the Louisiana Bayou. Maddy, from the city, goes to visit her Grandmere, in the country swamps, for the first time. Her siblings scare her into thinking Grandmere is a witch, and they’re not to far off… but she’s the good kind, using herbal remedies to help her neighbors and claiming that she can see the future in visions. Maddy thinks it’s a little weird, but she loves the country, her Grandmere and her sayings, and the neighbors, especially her new best friend, Bear, that takes her on adventures. Once out on the swamp in their air boat, Maddy glimps a girl who she comes to realize is a mermaid called Mami Wata. Her Grandmere tells the story of Mami Wata being a guiding support through the time of slavery her relatives endured. Mami Wata gives Maddy visions of an oncoming disaster that Maddy tries to prevent from destroying the bayou and her best friend.

It was a nice book to listen to, if you can suspend reality. But I got a surprise when I looked up what Mami Wata really was. She sounded folkoric and African. Apparently, she is an African (and some other cultures) water goddess usually naked and known for being a temptress. Usually, she will lure men to sleep with her and then kill them or give them an STD. And women who follow her will become infertile even though she makes them rich wealth-wise. That was a little disturbing. In the book, Mami Wata was seen as a helpful girl mermaid that was African (not like the light skinned ones from the folk tale) and helped save the bayou from a hurricane by piling mud up in the river with her mer-friends. This was disappointing, because if you’re trying to rediscover your roots and spread your folksy history, don’t do it wrongly! You can’t just make bad mythic creatures suddenly helpful! Especially if you want to preserve culture history.  (At least this is what I thought the book was trying to do) And “where yat?” The dialect of the characters didn’t really match the bayou culture either, other than her Grandmere being called such and maybe saying one or two French words (veet and oui). This doesn’t count as cultural education, sorry. And I feel like kids that read this will think it is. That’s my thumbs down.

Although I found them likeable enough, the characters weren’t really well-rounded or dynamic. Maddy didn’t even change that much. She was scared for a half page to go to her grandma’s and then she was an all-out bayou girl the next page, without really considering her urban family again. She was kind of courageous and definitely very eccentric, but she didn’t really feel like a real character either. It was like she was the new Bayou Lavalier (her last name) messiah seeing visions to save her ancestral land from disappearing under water. The neighbors treated her like she was the future. It was kind of strange. I’m not sure how a child would take it, or if they would be like, “cool, mermaids!” and just go with it.

The storyline was mainly character driven, but there wasn’t much going on other than disconcerting visions muddled with reality, her Grandmeres random sad moods, and her romps with Bear in the bayou that feel like manic chases. Everything is very whirlwind without too much happening.

Other than that, it was a pleasant although kind of traumatic book if you like stories about kids getting used to culture shock who have an obsession with magical visions and mermaids. I did like the environmental aspect of the book where there is discussion about the coasts slowly flooding the bayou because of hurricanes and oil spills. It makes you want to defend animals and nature against human evil and natural disasters. The tone felt suspenseful in that you knew something bad was going to happen (and in sets of threes), but it was also slow and exploratory of the setting, but not that detailed. It might be sobering and whimsical at the same time for young readers, which may be confusing.

This book meant well, and it’s readable. But I probably wouldn’t recommend it.