Jewish World Review Dec. 28, 2004 / 16 Teves, 5765

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Consumer Reports

My yard for a library | HENDERSON, La. — The children of this little town in Cajun country are lucky. You can see it in their bright faces.

This is a working-poor town close to the rich Atchafalaya Swamp, as great a natural gift as exists in our country. You can thread the endless acres of bony cypress knees to see white egrets and blue herons and frogs and alligators. You can plow the water hyacinths with their exotic purple blossoms. Once a year you can watch as the roseate spoonbills nest in the woods, their lithe bodies as pink as bubble gum.

Henderson children — most of them — grow up working and playing in this wondrous swamp. Their parents and grandparents harvest crawfish or gators for a living, or, at the least, spend their free time scooting about Henderson Lake fishing and hunting for recreation.

In Henderson, you don't have the problem of children too fat from spending their young lives in front of televisions and computers. They still play outside, albeit sometimes on dangerous motorized contraptions like four-wheelers.

They are rich, then, in their surroundings, with easy access to vast sugar-cane fields and swampy playgrounds and woods strung with Spanish moss. They don't have to take the subway to a city park; their world is a vast park, an exceedingly natural one.

And the children are rich in family. Cajun families stay near one another, for the most part, with brothers and sisters living on the same streets, and cousins multiplying exponentially. People here take care of their old relatives with a devotion and determination you rarely see in our country. Families are large and close.

The Cajun culture is amazingly pure. The food and music and patois are distinctive and celebrated. It still means something to be Cajun, and the children know this.

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Oh, the interstate now zips right through the heart of Acadiana, with its attendant pizza parlors and discount stores and cell towers and endless material goods to covet. And, like children everywhere, the kids in Henderson are susceptible to gimcracks and fast food.

Yet, for the most part, the life of a child here remains relatively simple, clean and good, with big doses of family, nature and tradition.

But the children of Henderson need something. I cannot help but notice. They need a library. It is something I haven't said before when spending time here. I hesitate, because I'm only an outsider who pops in for a few weeks each year to eat crawfish and listen to roots music and zip about the swamp taking photographs.

I've hesitated to make an issue of what I consider a lapse in this otherwise enviable civilization. And I know there is a library in neighboring Breaux Bridge, and another in the town where most of these children go to school, a place called Cecilia.

At the risk of sounding like a meddling, do-gooder bluestocking, I'll say it now: Henderson needs a lending library, at least one for the children.

I've mentioned this to several of my friends and relatives, and already the books are piling up in my truck. But a pile of books does not a library make. So I plan to shelve them in a backyard storage shed until something better comes along.

We now have "Tom Sawyer" and "The Perfect Tree" and "Georgie" and "Spot Goes to the Farm" and several volumes of "The Boxcar Children." A Mississippi neighbor donated "How the Littlest Cherub Was Late for Christmas," and my nephew generously gave up his worn favorite, "Arthur's Neighborhood."

The odd books I've collected already are going to good use. Kelli and Morgan and James and Tyler and Hazy and Lexi, and sometimes Collin, and I get together in the shed and read a book. We call it our reading club.

Reading is a habit acquired at an early age, and these enthusiastic children, with any luck, will be forever hooked.

Their rich lives are about to become richer, with gifts like "The Mud Pony" and "Aladdin" and "A Dragon in a Wagon." Maybe we're on the evolutionary path to a real library — or maybe we are one.

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© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate