Naked in the River

Odile Aucoin and Jean-Francois LeBlanc took a steamboat down Bayou Teche in 1923 to the river town of Cours D’eau, Louisiana, to make their fortune together, exchanging a hardscrabble rural life for opportunities only a boomtown could offer.

He had a third-grade education, she’d made it through seventh. She carried a carefully folded spelling certificate congratulating her on a perfect score, in case it might help her get a job. They’d been married in the parish clerk’s office in St. Martinville before eloping on the steamboat Amy Hewes (with a dancehall onboard), planning a church wedding once they’d settled and started making money. Odile was dark-haired, wide-faced, pretty in her way, with lively eyes that didn’t miss a thing. Jean-Francois was five-foot-eleven, broad-shouldered, good-looking, and genial. He always had a harmonica in his pocket and was a world-class whistler. Odile was the willful one. She had plans. She was nineteen. Jean-Francois had just turned twenty-six. They spoke nuanced French with each other, broken English to the outside world.

Odile took a job at a seafood warehouse on Front Street down by the river, picking crabs for ten cents a pound, leaving her fingers bloody from the sharp shells and swollen from the wetness. She worked faster than most to make enough to enroll in an English grammar class once a week at the Marcel School for adults, intent on getting her high school diploma. Jean-Francois worked at the shell crusher, hauling fifty-pound bags of pulverized oyster shells used for covering roads and parking lots, a modern improvement over dirt paths, which turned to muddy ruts in the Louisiana rain. The heavy work didn’t bother Jean-Francois, who had been working hard for as long as he could remember. His mother died in childbirth when he was two years old, and his father remarried soon after. Jean-Francois was the oldest of a brood of half brothers and sisters he helped raise. He could cook, quiet a baby, work a cane field or build anything you wanted, whistling all the while. Work didn’t bother Jean-Francois, it was expected, he did it without complaint; it was the evenings he looked forward to.

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