Ken Wells's first novel, Meely LaBauve, portrays a young man's coming of age in the Cajun country of lower-Louisiana during the 1960s. Though the coming-of-age novel has been done many times over, it's never been done quite this way and seldom has it been done this well. Meely (short for Emile) relates his story to the reader and is as likable and funny as a latter-day Huckleberry Finn. Even the various adventures Meely gets into, with his friends Chickie Naquin and Joey Hebert, alternately playing Tom Sawyer to his Huck, are reminiscent of Mark Twain, and like much of Twain's fiction, Wells's book works on more than one level. Like Twain, Wells uses humor to pull the reader in as he confronts the issue of race relations.
Since losing his mother, Meely has been forced to do for himself. He hunts and fishes the Catahoula Bayou for food he alone prepares and even grows a tiny garden on the crumbling old homeplace he shares with his father, who is more often hunting alligators and drinking than home raising his son. Meely is small for his age and rarely attends school. When he does, he gets picked on by many of the bigger boys, especially Junior Guidry a longtime eighth grader too big for his age. Junior and his gang have it in for Meely, labeling him with the derogatory name Sabine (on his father's side, Meely is descended from wild injun blood, a group as equally despised by Junior as the black families who work the cane fields). Though Meely is not afraid to fight, he is also not above running away.
Meely becomes friends with Cassie Jackson, a beautiful young black woman. Then they become more than friends the discovery of sexuality being another necessary staple of the coming-of-age novel, though here it is sweetly rendered. Through their relationship, Wells is able to contrast the racism Meely is victim to with that felt by the African-American characters.
Soon Meely, set up by Junior, is in trouble with the police, but rather than run, he decides to take a stand.
Though the book is often laugh-out-loud funny, Meely LaBauve is no less poignant because of its honed sense of humor. Wells, an award-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, has carved a sincere and courageous portrait of a boy becoming a man under uneasy conditions from what might have seemed hackneyed material in less capable hands.
R. Todd Smith is a writer in Macon, Georgia.