A Dovecote and its Backstory
Award-winning author and syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson visits the Butler Greenwood Plantation and her friend, author Ann Butler, in St. Francisville, Louisiana.
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Anne is a friend, a prolific writer, the chatelaine. Her amazing memoir, Weep for the Living, proves true the James Dickey quote, “A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.” It’s meant to be funny, and as a newspaper columnist, I get the joke.
But Anne wasn’t standing in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning. She just was. And nobody has more to write about.
One hot August day in 1997, the late Murray Henderson, Anne’s estranged husband and a former warden of nearby Angola, emptied his .38 pistol into the abdomen of his wife of seven years and then, for two hours, waited for her to bleed to death. By feigning death, she survived.
“Never shoot a writer,” Anne has said. She’ll get a book out of it.
Henderson died in prison. Anne wrote her book. After many surgeries, she is still blond, slender and beautiful, successfully running her family’s plantation as a bed and breakfast. She writes about that, too, showcasing her trademark sense of humor as we visitors come and go and amuse her in countless ridiculous ways.
I like to stay in the cabin called the Dovecote, which reminds me of something you might see in France. It is the perfect mixture of romance and practicality, comfort and slightly absurd design.
I can just imagine telling a contractor in Tishomingo County, for instance, that you want a three-story, pentagonal-shaped dwelling that looks like a windmill built on the side of a deep ravine with decks leading into it. “Say what?”
At the Dovecote, you know for certain you’re not at the Holiday Inn Express.
This time I’m at Butler Greenwood for the annual St. Francisville Writers and Readers Symposium. Carole McKellar from the Bay is with me.
Besides visiting Anne, we are eager to see and hear Mississippi writer Deborah Johnson, whose latest novel, The Secret of Magic, is textured and powerful. People inevitably compare Deborah’s work with The Help, but I find it much better, far more bona fide, like Nanci Kincaid’s Crossing Blood.
And Melissa Delbridge, the Duke archivist turned memoirist, will be reading from Family Bible, not a religious book. I met Melissa in Fairhope, Ala., as the two of us sat at a bookstore table hoping someone would come buy our work. When few did, we swapped books. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since.
I don’t know Louisiana poet laureate Peter Cooley of New Orleans, also staying at Butler Greenwood, who looks like Woody Allen. He hooks a ride with Carole and me to several events and turns out to be just as funny as Woody in his Columbo raincoat and weenie dog socks.
But his poems are deadly serious, and in Night Bus to the Afterlife, his post-Katrina work, knocks you for an emotional loop.
Soon enough, but not for long enough, Carole and I are sitting in the kitchen of this unlikely pigeon house in the woods, toasting the literary adventure and feeling sorry for everyone else. Nice work if you can get it, this reading and writing stuff.
Before turning in, I stand on the Dovecote porch and look into the misty night, imagining all the blood, sweat and tears my friend Anne has invested in this place. It is her family and forever home, its trees planted from acorns in the 1790s, both anchor and albatross, I imagine, without any real way to know.