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The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Life in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina Hardcover – September 2, 2008

4.8 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Author and journalist Wells, a native of Louisiana bayou country, was a Wall Street Journal reporter when Katrina struck in 2005. Arguably more horrific than the scene in New Orleans were the bayou parishes, particularly St. Bernard and Plaquemines, where the eye of Katrina came on land. After hitching a National Guard helicopter to St. Bernard Parish, Wells meets Ricky Robin, whose ancestors had been hunting, fishing, and pirating the bayous for over 250 years. Robin became Wells's guide, relating harrowing stories of the storm, as even the parish president and his staff were trapped, their emergency vehicles flooded or washed away entirely; the first outside help to reach them was not FEMA, but a squad of Canadian Mounted Police. Wells also examines the disaster's "unnatural causes," like the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping canal dredged from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico, which provided an inland channel for the Category 5 storm surge driven by Katrina. Afterwards, the failed levee system prevented filthy, polluted water from draining back to the ocean, turning much of the bayou into a cesspool. Vivid prose, first-hand testimony and solid, heartbreaking reportage make this disaster debrief hard to put down, and worth the attention of every U.S. citizen.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"Gripping. . . . This is not another sad Katrina book. It's a book that dispassionately looks at what happened and why and relies on facts for impact. Everyone should read it."—Greg Langley, The Advocate (Baton Rouge)
(Greg Langley The Advocate (Baton Rouge))

"[This] off-the-beaten path Katrina story is one of the best. . . . In the glut of works about the devastation Katrina caused . . . Wells has found a fresh, compelling story. As a bonus, he is a superb reporter and accomplished stylist. Of the dozen Katrina books I have read so far, I am guessing The Good Pirates will stay with me the most vividly. . . . The individual survival stories make for adventure storytelling of the first order."—Steve Weinberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
(Steve Weinberg Atlanta Journal-Constitution 2008-08-24)

Winner of the 2008 Harry Chapin Media Award in the Books category, presented by WHY (World Hunger Year).
(Harry Chapin Media Award WHY 2009-04-27)

“Ken Wells is first and foremost a great reporter. Nothing escapes him, and yet every detail he includes counts. This book is literary journalism at its best.”—Don Ranly, University of Missouri School of Journalism
(Don Ranly)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition, 1st Printing edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300121520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300121520
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,463,082 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Ken Wells, novelist and journalist, grew up in a beer-drinking family deep in South Louisiana's Cajun bayou country. His father was a part-time alligator hunter and snake collector and his mother a gumbo chef extraordinaire. Second of six sons, Wells began his journalism career covering car wrecks and gator sightings for the weekly Houma, La., Courier newspaper.
He has gone on to an illustrious career: a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the Miami Herald; editor of two Pulitzer-Prize-winning projects for Page One of The Wall Street Journal where, over a 24-year period, he also roamed the globe covering the first Persian Gulf War, South Africa's transition to a multiracial democracy and many other stories. He has since worked as senior editor for Conde Nast Portfolio magazine and is now an editor-at-large for Bloomberg News, writing and editing longform narrative journalism for Bloomberg's projects and investigations team.
Wells is the author of four well-received novels of the Cajun bayous: Meely LaBauve (a 2000 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers book); Junior's Leg (2001); Logan's Storm (2002); and Crawfish Mountain (2007).
He has also penned two non-fiction books: Travels with Barley: a Quest for the Perfect Beer Joint (2004), a travelogue through America's $75 billion beer industry; and The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous, a story of blue-collar heroism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The Pirates, published in September 2008 by Yale University Press, was nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and won the Harry Chapin book award in September 2009.
His fifth novel, Rascal, a Dog and His Boy, will be published by Knopf-Random House Young Adult in September 2010. He is currently working on a memoir.
Wells lives in New York City, where he continues on his quest to find the Perfect Beer Joint and dabbles in his hobbies that include photography and song-writing. He often wishes he were fishing.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've rarely read as gripping, horrifying, and inspiring a book as Ken Wells' story of what happened when The Storm hit the low-lying bayou parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. As a reporter for the "Wall Street Journal," Wells, himself a Louisiana native, saw the devastation in the two parishes immediately after Katrina. His The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous is an oral history of sorts of what happened to them, a story that got "forgotten" by a nation focused on New Orleans proper, and how the folks in the parish have fared since.

St Bernard and Plaquemines are shrimping parishes, and Wells' story focuses on the Robin clan, a shrimping family that's lived and worked in the area for over 200 years. Ricky Robin, captain of a 70 ton trawler called the "Lil Rick"--a ship built by hand--sails up the Violet Canal hoping to weather out the hurricane. But surges whipped up by the 140+ mph winds get him in trouble almost at once. In one of the book's most harrowing passages, Ricky remembers seeing a 20 foot skiff blowing through the air and then skidding across the roiling waves like a thrown stone.

In the three days following the worst of the storm, Ricky gives shelter on the "Lil Rick" to hundreds of homeless survivors, sometimes hammering out dixieland tunes on his trumpet to keep up their spirits. Disasters can bring out the worst in frightened and desperate people. But it brought out the very best in Ricky Robin.

Although Robin is the star of the book, Wells also introduces us to others who weathered the story-- such as Ricky's cousin Ronald Robin. Ronald, a veteran hurricane survivor, also tried to weather the storm in Violet Canal. But like so many others, he was stunned by Katrina's ferocity and swiftness.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ken Wells can write. Let me repeat this fact. Ken Wells can write. If you like the grittiness of Rick Bragg or the majesty of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, you will like this book.

I am a reader, presumably readers of these reviews share this avocation. My greatest joy is what I call being "stopped" while reading a book. By this I mean reading a line so beautiful or thoughtful that I am actually stopped. I am forced to put down the book and let the words pour over me. Again and again Mr. Wells' prose stopped me.

Good Pirates is the story of courageous men and women fighting not only Hurricane Katrina, but for a way of life and a piece of America that most of their fellow countrymen do not even know exists. Wells, born and bred very near these bayous, knows these folks and their land in his soul --- and it shows.

The courage of good pirates like Ricky Robin and the drama of their fight against Hurricane Katrina and what is called modern progress is inspiring. The site of the battleground, essentially the same land where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1812, is the swampy end of America where Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico occupy the same space. The land is described by Mr. Wells so beautifully that it is as breathtaking as the book's narrative of the struggle of man versus nature. The following excerpt is an example:

"Uplanders might find the greater landscape monotonous, the way a driver across Kansas might finally declare the endless canvas of golden wheat fields monochromatic. But bayou folk never tire of it., for they divine, in observations steeped in time, how these landscapes shift with the light and the tides and the seasons; how routinely they give up their wonders and their mysteries.
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Format: Hardcover
Seldom do I read a book that I just can't put down, but this book was just that! Except for the bare necessities of living for those 15 hours or so, I just soaked up every page like the proverbial sponge. I live in Louisiana and have experienced several serious hurricanes - in Jena during Audrey in the 50s, then in Baton Rouge for Betsy and Camille in the 60s. Since the 70s, I've lived in the northeast Louisiana Mississippi River Delta and rarely feel much effect from hurricanes except for the increased rains, winds, and tornadoes. We experienced Gustav just this year in a much more catastrophic way than usual. Katrina brought us evacuees that lived with us for 4 months. Therefore, I felt connected to the author's stories about the storm, its devastation and, subsequently, its snails-paced recovery. The personal stories of the peoples' lives in Terrebonne and St. Bernard were gripping, and I could tell the author's commitment and connectedness to the people. Some of his most interesting work was the description of how the lower parishes were settled by the Acadians, Ilenas, and others who remain committed to their homes in that area to this very day. I hear people say, "That place is just uninhabitable....why do they keep going back.....how could they rebuild after what they've gone through." Reading this work of their proud heritage, I can say that I now have a greater understanding of why they go back. It is their home.
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Format: Hardcover
All the reviews are right on; this book is wonderful for many reasons. I was compelled to read beyond the end of the story into "Notes on Sources," where, on page 240, I found a paragraph about the Chalmette High School's post-storm video on the St. Bernard Parish school Web site at: [...] Click on "Our Story" in the left panel. It is excellent and will touch you deeply.
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