Tag Archives: provencal

Johnny Robinson and The Bottle Tree

Many of those who are reading this post have read The Bottle Tree and may already know the story of Johnny Robinson but I'm going to repeat it here anyway and then discuss what the post is really about.

Johnny was a young man I went to school with at Provencal School in Louisiana. I went there from Kindergarten through Second Grade and then went back to visit anytime I was in Louisiana and school was in session. 

Johnny was my first African American friend and I'm pretty sure that the friendship with him when I was young made race much less of an issue with me than it was with many of my peers.

I hadn't seen him in years but when I started writing The Bottle Tree I named one of the main characters after Johnny. Last year when the book was published I started looking for him so I could let him know what I'd done and just to reconnect.

Unfortunately, another childhood friend of mine let me know that Johnny had passed away from cancer the year before.

This trip in for the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, I came in early so I'd have a chance to go by and take a copy of the book to his mother. Doris Robinson.

Ms. Doris still lives in the same house where Johnny was raised and I made the trip today to visit with her for a little while. She told me all about Johnny's life since he'd graduated and about his last days. I also learned it was her birthday today. I was happy to present her a copy of The Bottle Tree and will make it a point to go back and see her when I come back "home" to Natchitoches.

Below is a picture of Ms. Doris Robinson and me, sitting on her front porch and she has her copy of The Bottle Tree in her hand. The other picture is the memorial handout from Johnny's funeral.

This comes the week after the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case and I can't help but think maybe things would have been different if Mr. Zimmerman and/or Mr. Martin would have had the chance to get to know each other in a situation like Johnny and I did.

 

Doris Robinson and Robert D. Bennett johnny robinson

My Book – The Bottle Tree

 

A couple of people have asked me about the book The Bottle Tree and how I came to write it. Since it is about to be available in print (fingers crossed) I thought this might be a good time to address it.

A long time ago in a land far, far away (Louisiana) I was out with my uncle looking for a cave back in the Kisatchie National Forest. The cave was rumored to have once been the hideout of the outlaw John Murrell during his days when that stretch of Louisiana was claimed by both (and neither) the Spanish and the Americans. It was known as "No Man's Land" or the "Neutral Strip". Since neither side policed it and the major east-west trail, the El Camino Real, ran through it outlaws were having a field day.

The cave was supposed to have horse troughs carved out of the rock and legends of hidden gold are rampant. During my days off I'd take my metal detector and a shovel and we'd wander the hills. If you know me then you know, obviously, I never found the hidden gold but one day while crossing a creek I used the shovel to steady myself and banged it down on what I thought was a rock. A piece of it chipped away and the rich scent of pine wafted forth.

A few minutes later I began finding rusted and, with the exception of a piece off of a wagon, unidentifiable iron parts in the area. We had no idea what the mass in the creek was and mentioned it later to my great aunt. She told us we had found the site of an old turpentine camp that she had lived at when she was a little girl.

There are excellent articles describing the turpentine camps in Texas, Louisiana and Florida here and here.

That is when my imagination kicked in and the result was "The Bottle Tree".

The name itself has been in the back of my mind as a great title for a book for 20 years or so and one day the story just fell into place.

The Bottle Tree is about a simple life and friendship. It also addresses head on the issues of race.

Leesie, the character in the book, was very loosely based on my great-aunt, Thelma Leach, who was a teacher in the Kisatchie area for all of her life. The "colored boy", Johnny Robinson, was named after a childhood friend of mine who attended Provencal School. Provencal is a very, very small town in Natchitoches Parish and when I was a kid had about 300 students, total, in grades from Kindergarten through 12th grade. The kids were bussed in from a huge area spread across Kisatchie Forest.

What is a bottle tree? If you've driven through the south then you've probably seen one. It's a tree or pole with bottles stuck all over it. There are a lot of legends surrounding them, but one in particular is prominent in this story.

The book is a little shorter than I would have liked because I really, really liked writing it. I wanted to stretch it out more but, believe it or not, the book didn't want me to and evaded my doing that at every turn.

I hope you'll get a copy and read it. The story has both funny and sad parts and even though I wrote it and have read it a number of times, I still love it.

You can buy the book at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.