|Shadows on the Bayou
by Patricia Vaughn
|(Pocket Books, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-671-52005-9|
They were the gens de couleur libre, the free people of color – people of African
descent who had varying degrees of Caucasian blood. During the 1800s in Louisiana,
thousands of gens de couleur libre straddled the invisible color line that separated Blacks from whites. Neither Black nor white, their racial classification created a separate
caste. They had certain social and economic advantages not afforded to Blacks, Negroes
Since marriage to whites was illegal and marriage to Blacks was unconscionable, plaçage arrangements were common. Raising and providing mistresses for rich white planters was a cottage industry of the times. Young ladies made their debuts at quadroon balls that were attended only by white men and free women of color. The events were held for the express purpose of securing male "protectors" for the women who were light-skinned, virginal, highly educated and trained in social graces and "secrets of the boudoir."
After the quadroon balls, the men contracted with the girls' mothers for houses, clothes and servants. In exchange for their acceptance, mothers often received stipends for themselves and other stipulations to benefit other family members. The church did not sanction these "living-in-sin" arrangements and children of such unions were illegitimate. And, when the protectors married, they generally left their mistresses.
Patricia Vaughn has used the plaçage system as a backdrop for her second novel, Shadows on the Bayou. It is an intriguing tale of class, caste, color, race and gender in antebellum New Orleans. It is also a story of love, loyalty, tradition and choices.
Shadows on the Bayou begins in 1827 as Celeste Dupont and her two children, Sylvia and Lucien, are being abandoned by her protector on the eve of his marriage. She will be provided for as long as she doesn't tell his bride about their plaçage arrangement or the children's existence.
Celeste is extremely bitter and decides to use her daughter as an instrument for revenge. Sylvia will be groomed, educated and contracted to the highest bidder. For her part, Sylvia will have a house, servants and children who can pass for white. Celeste will receive a money and be the envy of her peers, while Lucien will receive land – something denied him when his father married. It never occurs to Celeste that her scheme will ultimately condemn her daughter to the same lifestyle that has caused her so much pain.
Sylvia abhorred the thought of being a mistress. And, while her friends were anxiously anticipating their coming out balls, she dreamt of marrying for love in an elaborate ceremony. After years of her mother's rigorous training and emotional neglect training, she is sent to France for four years of schooling. Celeste has contracted for Sylvia to become the mistress of Adrien Valcour, a rich white planter.
"She had been bred and sold like a thoroughbred mare. Bred to give her best and then put out to pasture to languish away in loneliness. Her beauty had been a curse."
Aboard the ship on her return to New Orleans, Sylvia meets Justin Reynaud, an artisan and free man of color. Justin is a third-generation ironworker whose grandfather used his skills to purchase his freedom. Sylvia thinks Justin is arrogant. Justin sees the plaçage system as another form of slavery. They are immediately attracted to each other.
In New Orleans, their paths cross often. As their mutual attraction intensifies, Sylvia realizes she is in love with Justin. He proposes to her less than a month before she is to go l ive with Adrien Valcour. She must quickly decide whether to conform with tradition and the wishes of her family or to follow her heart.
Shadows on the Bayou is an intriguing novel of conscience and consequences. There are several interesting plot twists. The complex main characters are well developed. Patricia Vaughn is not afraid to show their strengths, weaknesses and incongruities. For example, Justin, who decries the plaçage system as a form of slavery, is a slaveowner.
The secondary characters add depth to the story. Celeste Dupont, Felicité LeRoy, Mère Henriette Delille and Angelique Romain represent very different aspects of the plaçage system and its impact on the women involved.
Shadows on the Bayou, with its colorful portrayal of antebellum New Orleans and useful bibliography for further reading, is certainly worth exploring.