Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (University Press of Mississippi, 2003)

In the United States and many other countries, for a time in the mid- to late-1980s, you couldn't swing a polecat without hitting something that said Cajun on it. It started with Cajun cooking, particularly Chef Paul Prudhomme's blackened redfish, but pretty soon it was a bonafide fad, and you could buy Cajun everything but pet rocks.

The fad ran its course, as all fads do, in this case leaving behind not much but the music and an occasional restaurant somewhere in the South Pacific or perhaps the far North Atlantic or even somewhere in China that still serves "Cajun" food (which generally means the local food with a little bit of hot sauce).

But what about the people whose identities were appropriated for the marketing gimmicks? Who are the Cajuns, and what are their lives really like? Shane K. Bernard, himself a Cajun, the author of a previous book about the Louisiana music known as swamp pop, and the official historian for the company that makes Tabasco Sauce, tells us who the Cajuns are in this book. It'd make a fine textbook for a high school or university course in sociology or anthropology or regional American history, and it's also an engrossing read for anyone interested in those subjects. In other words, although Bernard's subject, "The Americanization of a People" is historical, even scholarly, his writing style is accessible to ordinary folks.

Bernard touches on the "ancient" history of the Cajuns, how they were driven out of Nova Scotia ("Acadia") by the British, and how some settled in southern Louisiana; how until well into the 20th Century they were a French-speaking minority in the U.S., surrounded by a hostile or at best indifferent Anglo-based society that called them "coonass" and worse. But the subject of his book is how the people were Americanized and moved from a rural, agricultural, folk-based culture to a part of the consumer-oriented, English-speaking mainstream.

The process began with the Second World War, when many Cajuns joined the armed services to defend their homeland. Their exposure to Anglo culture through their service, as well as through new mass media, highways, and the oil industry, brought the Cajuns to the world and the world to the Cajuns. Since then, the Cajuns have ridden a cultural rollercoaster, fueled by a desire to join the mainstream and a conflicting desire to protect their cultural heritage.

Bernard tells the tale more or less by decade, showing us the fortunes of his people against the backdrop of rapid social change in the world in the second half of the 20th Century: the unrest and radical ethnic movements of the '60s, the retreat into self-expression in the "me decade" of the '70s, the exploitation of the '80s, and attempts to strike a balance between exploitation and preserving their heritage in the '90s and until today.

One of the main threads that runs through the history of the Cajuns in Louisiana is their music, and Bernard braings that fact sharply into focus. "...Cajun music remained the medium through which the grassroots pride and empowerment movement expressed itself most vibrantly," he writes of the mid-70s Cajun Power movement. "Filmmakers featured the sound in documentaries such as Les Blank's Spend It All and Paul goldsmith's PBS production The Good Times Are Killing Me. Cajun-country artist Jimmy C Newman scored an international hit with 'Lache pas la patate,' the first Cajun release to earn a gold record. Apollo 12 astronauts enjoyed Doug Kershaw's "Louisiana Man" while en route to the moon. Not to be outdone, Lesa Cormier and the Sundown Playboys of Lake Charles released 'Saturday Night Special,' a traditional Cajun French recording, on the Beatles' Apple label of London." And at the center of the music revival were musicians like Dewey Balfa, who was the mentor of many Cajun musicians who carry on the tradition into new territory today.

The Cajuns is excellent popular history, well written and comprehensive, with an insider's viewpoint but an historian's objectivity.

[Gary Whitehouse]