“Chita: A Memory of Last Island,” by Lafcadio Hearn (edited by Delia LaBarre)

Lafcadio Hearn

Reviewed by Adele Annesi

The nineteenth-century novella Chita: A Memory of Last Island, by Lafcadio Hearn, blends fact with fiction in a lavishly haunting tale of a Louisiana isle whose serene beauty is destroyed, leaving a legacy of sorrow, joy, and warning.

The real L’Île Dernière (“Last Island”) is gone, but her story remains. Set along the lush and perilous Louisiana coast, Chita describes the arrival and aftermath of a tempest that in August 1856 killed 200 people and decimated an island.

Hearn’s portrayal of this Louisiana bayou locale is as lush as a Rousseau painting. Employing his journalistic background, Hearn begins the first of Chita’s three parts—“The Legend of L’Île Dernière”—by introducing the story’s source, a veteran pilot who tells the tale of Last Island. The narrator muses that the sea is never one voice but a tumult, of the drowned, the dead, “the moaning of countless ghosts, all rising, to race against the living, at the great Witch call of storms.”

For much of its existence, Last Island had a Brigadoon quality, of light and magical summer days, cloudless climb and symmetry. And there was fun, “diversions for all,” “hunting and fishing parties, yachting excursions, rides, music, games, promenades.” All the while, “[l]ove wrote its dreams upon the sand.” Until the waves.

It was August 10, and what started as a ripple soon became gray and fog and breaker and gale. Then came the rain, in torrents. The steamer Star was due from St. Mary’s Parish, and Last Island’s inhabitants waited, initially in hope. Finally, they sited her. The Star had snaked down the Atchafalaya, veteran sailor Captain Abraham Smith at her helm.

But as the vessel approached Muggah’s Hotel, she couldn’t draw near enough to lower her gang plank. Anchor dragging, she began rising with the waters. To salvage her working core, Smith ordered her upper works cut away. The Star drew nearer the elegant lodging, where inside was the feel of the Titanic, and as the wind howled and the rain pummeled the coast and the sea rose, the hotel guests could no longer deny that the hurricane, still unnamed, had come. The land shuddered. The Star was dragged away by her anchors. But the captain, a rope at his waist, skippered the vessel again and again into the surging.

Originally published in 1888 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, featuring varied sections and subsections, Chita at times has the feel of a sensational news piece. But Hearn devotes much of each section to setting, at times using prose as an assault on the senses that raises the work from chronicle to classic. His descriptions especially serve to create a hyper sense of place that brings into bas-relief the Louisiana Gulf coast, the rise and residence to so many peoples and cultures.

In “Out of the Sea’s Strength,” the novella’s second part, Hearn describes Last Island’s scant remains after the storm as a mere “line of oaks facing the Gulf,” nothing that could have told a visitor of the days of the “trilling of crickets and the fluting of birds had ceased, of nights when the voices of the marsh had been hushed for fear.” Yet, in the aftermath of that same storm, Spanish fisherman Feliu Viosca discovers a lone child alive with her dead mother—this after Feliu’s wife, Carmen, has dreamed of her own long-buried child, Conchita, returning, if only in reverie.

Now Carmen’s dream has come to life, and Feliu’s small sailing ships arrive to reveal that no one had ever seen this child with the golden hair and black eyes. Only later do Feliu and Carmen learn that the child’s name is Lili and that she is Creole. They know her mother is dead, but what of her father, Julien, who was listed among the missing?

In part three, “The Shadow of the Tide,” Carmen cares for the little girl, renamed Chita, who learns Spanish, the life of the coast, and fables from Carmen. Eventually, Chita also learns about swimming, Spanish heritage, and something of a new kind of faith. Chita had long conceived of God as like an old doctor she once knew, bearded and large, but now she understands that he is everywhere—like “something that filled the world and reached to the stars,” something “omnipresent and everlasting like the high blue of heaven.”

In this final section, Hearn picks up again the narrative of Chita’s lost father as Chita grows into a confident and capable young woman who has a growing sense of what has been lost and found and perhaps lost again. Their relationship, what’s left of it, parallels the precarious beauty of the Louisiana coast, found and lost by visitors and dwellers alike, and whose ethereal and temporal nature provokes a greater love, or ought to, precisely because it is transient. Yet the extinction of an island also serves as a warning: without care, even the most serene beauty may be savored only for a short time.

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