1811 – Slaves from Devils Bayou and other plantations along the Mississippi River join in the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. On their way to “conquer” New Orleans, the rebels are gunned down by plantation owners and federal troops. Many of the captured are executed, their heads displayed on pikes along the River Road. Even toddlers carried by their parents are severely punished - for the rest of their lives.
1956 – International celebrity artist Stephen Winston, co-founder of the Devils Bayou Art Colony, disappears during a summer session. He leaves a studio of overturned easels, squeezed-out paints and splattered blood, presumably his own. His wife, fellow artist Stella Winston, is released after initial suspicion. Returning to Louisiana a year later to have Winston declared legally dead, Stella then disappears from her own life story.
2021 – After a long, quiet life as a wife and mother on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Stella Dorn passes away while trying to organize her papers. Few know anything of her past, yet that doesn’t stop Stella’s son from contacting her grandson, a federal attorney in Washington. Sam Jacobs takes on the estate case only under duress. He promises he’ll search quickly for whatever might belong in the estate. The narrative points him first to New York City, then to the French Quarter and Garden District of New Orleans – and finally to the house at Devils Bayou itself.
New Orleans native John DeMers uses his sixth published novel to explore the myriad ways the distant past can suddenly become not so distant at all. In Devils Bayou (One River Books, $15.95), DeMers follows Sam Jacobs as he peels away the layers of time. The attorney discovers that, while most of us spend finite periods on this earth, some conspire, for good or ill, to achieve something quite different. In the nature religions brought by slaves from West Africa via the Caribbean, eternal life occurs considerably south of Christianity’s billowy heaven.
“It has taken me five novels set elsewhere to find the courage to take on my own complicated hometown,” DeMers says. “I have always considered New Orleans fairly enlightened compared to the rest of the South when it comes to race relations. Certainly, today’s white New Orleanians are aware of how much of ‘our’ culture we owe to numberless African Americans. I was drawn to this story, which came to me in a nightmare, by the chance to feel my way along our very tangled path.”
According to DeMers, one of the joys of penning Devils Bayou was revisiting in his imagination dozens of experiences that helped form him – from bonfires along the Mississippi River each Christmas Eve to multi-course dinners with cocktails and wine at restaurants like the fictional Julien’s, from boutique French Quarter hotels with “slave quarters” to renovated shotgun houses in the Marigny. All things carry the exotic imprint of France and Spain, and all bear the shameful marks of Black slavery.
DeMers is the author of 57 previous fiction and nonfiction books, including the Chef Brett mysteries beginning with Marfa Shadows (the wilds of Far West Texas) and New Wine (the fictional Greek island of Delfinos).