Monday, December 15, 2008

Cajun Christmas: The Legend of Papa Noel by Terri Hoover Dunham

...Papa Noel, he spend all year long makin' them toys for the good little Cajun boys and girls. And on Christmas he goes right down that Mississippi River to deliver them.

Ah, but one Christmas Eve, while Papa Noel was stuffin' them toys into that big burlap sack, he saw something he didn't like.

"Mais, non! Jus' look at dat fog rollin' in. It thicker than gravy on rice!"

There's no snow in bayou country, and no reindeer with a bright red nose to guide Papa Noel through the Louisiana fog on Christmas Eve. But with his toy-filled sack, Papa Noel does have a team of alligators to pull his trusty pirogue. And he does have another vaguely familiar helper--not Rudolph, but Nicolette, a rare white 'gator with glowing green eyes to guide his little boat through the cypress swamps to the cabins of good little Cajuns.

But this fog is something else again, too thick for even Nicolette's magical eyes to penetrate. Papa Noel encourages his coursers --"On, Etienne, Emille, Rommy and Renee, Alcee' and Alphonse, Francois and Fabienne"--but even with Nicolette in the lead the 'gators continue to scrape their bellies on the cypress knees. Papa Noel begins to worry.

"Mon ami, Nicolette, I don't t'ink even your magic will get us t'ru dis fog, but we mus' try. Ma petits await der toys!"

But in a novel turn on the tale, Papa gets some help from the very ones he wants to serve. "Wh-what's dat?" Etienne the alligator gasps. Up ahead they see a bright glow through the fog. It has to be beacon bonfires built by the Cajun families themselves.

"Them mens went out and chopped them some willow logs and gathered some reeds. They worked beaucoup hours to make a string of bonfires along that levee. I shoulda figured them Cajuns would know what to do." Papa Noel said. "You see, Cajuns is some kinda smart, yeah!"

It's a Joyeaux Noel to y'all and to y'all a good night for another rescued Christmas in Terri Dunham's The Legend of Papa Noel: A Cajun Christmas Story (Legend Series). Although there are no source notes that peg this tale to an authentic Louisiana legend, Dunham's selective use of Cajunisms (listed in a handy glossary in the front of the book) sets the stage for a colorful ethnic version of the familiar lost Santa story. Illustrator Laura Knorr builds in plenty of text-extending details, especially the rascally pet raccoon who accompanies Papa Noel and swipes his milk and cookies along the delivery route. In all, appealing grinning 'gators and a jolly blue-jeaned and suspendered Papa Noel add up to a fun read with a soupcon of Cajun seasoning for the holiday season.

For older picture book fans who are savvy enough to enjoy spoofs of the 'Twas the Night Before... format, this one will work well with Trosclair's classic Cajun Night Before Christmas (Night Before Christmas Series), and Moss' Cajun Night After Christmas. An' if your Cajun accent is as red hot as a gumbo roux, give it a workout with Mike Artell's outing of the Red Riding Hood tale in his bayou version, Petite Rouge (Picture Puffins). It's not Christmasy, but it sho' is joyeaux!

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