Welcome to the Louisiana Territory in 1793, where Bertram and Jonelle Tassin have newly arrived from France. People of strong personal values, the Tassins are also especially fair people. They don’t wish to be considered squatters by their new neighbors, so they purchase a portion of the valley settled long ago by the then-named Loos Loos Indians. Their agreement is that the Indians will share in all future commercial profits resulting from the Tassin’s investment. Soon named the Tassin Valley, within a few brief years it has grown to a sprawling 3,000 acres that now includes Bertram and Jonelle’s mansion and a general store.
It would be nearly twenty years before slaves were brought to the Tassin Valley through the transatlantic slave trade. Ten years later, the valley population comprised of “130 French settlers, 35 African slaves and 15 mixed race Free People of Color.” The French held to a Code Noir, a standard of treatment and life for slaves and free people of color: they could marry, their children could not be separated from their parents, and owners were required to teach slaves the concepts of the Catholic Church, offering a premise that slaves were human beings with souls. However, individual interpretations by white owners diluted the original intention of the Code.
When the next generation of slave and mixed raced children were born, the Code became even murkier, for these children possessed greater mixed heritage. This story opens in Paris in 1853. Twenty-three-year-old Emile Emanuel Bourdon, only son of the leading woodworker and carpenter, is a spoiled, irresponsible ne’er do well with no interest in work. His love of play and romance have left a long trail of bounties on his head, and his parents decide to send him to America so he can survive and hopefully grow more responsible. His father seeks a recommendation letter from a friend, Napoleon III, who is Emile’s godfather. Napoleon observes that his friend has raised “quite the disgusting character,” and says Emile must marry, that with no work background he must present himself as a family man and a potentially useful citizen.
Napoleon searches for Emile’s future wife, eventually finding Clotilde, beautiful daughter of parents desperate to end Clotilde’s “disgraceful” relationship with Francisco, the Black Spaniard. Emile and Clotilde, with no other choice, marry with resignation the following year. During the long voyage to America, Clotilde births a daughter, but easily gives the child over to the care of others. When the ship finally comes in view of Louisiana, she quietly slips into the water, presumably to swim to land.
The cover of Betrayal on the Bayou shows a gorgeous bayou scene of water, grasses, and sunshine reflections on the leafy trees, all so real you can almost hear the heat bugs buzzing. And yet, looking closer, we see silent, dark shadows. Inside, Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte has crafted chapters with the same rich depth and detail that tell the trifecta story of a) three generations of Tassin Valley inhabitants, b) the opening and growth of trade and commerce in the valley, and c) the intersection of the handsome, ne’er do well, Emile Bourdon and his rivalry with Marie Tassin, daughter of the founding couple and overseer of all they had created. Within these stories, we see how the first tender roots of systemic racism were able to take hold.
This is a book to read, to re-read, to take into your heart, and to always remember, so that we can effectively become part of the healing process. I treasure Bize-Boutte’s debut novel and highly recommend it to all readers seeking to educate themselves and heal the multi-century horrendous abuse of our fellow brothers and sisters.