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Voodoo Queen: the Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau.

Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau by Martha Ward University Press of Mississippi, March 2004 $26., ISBN 1-578-06629-8

If you've been to New Orleans's French Quarter you've most likely heard of Marie Laveau. You've probably seen the Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on 739 Bourbon Street, where all sorts of weird and frightening items are on display and sold. You may have walked to 509 Decatur Street and had a drink at the Marie Laveau Voodoo Bar. You might have heard her name included in the same category as ghosts, witches and vampires during a tour of the city's "darker places."

Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen who made Congo Square famous, is a New Orleans icon. Nevertheless, most of what a person learns of her in the touristy parts of the French Quarter are myths, twisted truths and lies--as is often the case with most things voodoo. Uncovering Laveau's story has stumped even the most experienced researchers. However, Martha Ward, a professor at the University of New Orleans, managed to reveal much with her book Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau.

In the Introduction, Ward says people kept telling her that no reliable sources of information about Marie Laveau were available. She was told that either they never existed, or they had been "stolen, destroyed or spirited away." One thing was certainly true--it was not easy investigating Laveau.

Ward wrote that along with her painstaking research, "I have relied on dreams, intuition, a hyperactive imagination, and funky Voodoo luck. From time to time, I have stood in front of the Laveau tomb in St. Louis Cemetery One and talked with her. Marie laughs when I ask, 'What really happened?' 'Who knows the whole story,' she says, 'and maybe it's better that way.'"

Nonetheless, Ward uses her best abilities as a researcher to add a giant piece to the puzzle. On the first page, Ward dispels one of the most common misconceptions about Laveau. "Marie Laveau, the legendary founder and priestess of American Voodoo, was in real life two women with the same name--a mother and her daughter, both Creoles of New Orleans."

The book reads more like an academic dig than a linear story of the Laveaus' lives. As other investigators have, Ward used old newspapers articles and hard to-find official documents to flesh things out. But she also incorporated never-before printed "eyewitness" accounts of the Laveaus' ceremonies and activities.

As the book moves along, Ward pointed out the places where news papers got information just plain wrong. She 'also drew attention to how the first Marie Laveau's youngest daughter, Philomene, reported all sorts of incorrect information in her mother's obituary; incorrect information that inadvertently helped to create the Laveau legend.

Though the Laveaus' ghosts were slippery, Ward was able to conjure up a shimmery image of them and that image was of two strong business-savvy, spiritually powerful Creole women who lived life to the fullest.

Not surprisingly, as Ward was doing her research she was warned that the Laveaus and the practice of voodoo were satanic and evil. A librarian even begged her to write about a woman with "more quality and substance." People fear what they don't understand. Ward wrote, "In place of such superstitious hype, I offer far more dangerous, hair-raising, melodramatic, and magical tales."

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate from Chicago. Her novel Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin) is scheduled for release in 2005.
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Author:Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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