Writer Tends Land Where Ancestors Were Slaves

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His ancestors were slaves. They worked this flat plantation land just west of the snaking Mississippi, chopping sugar cane with their machetes. They and some of their descendants lived in the plantation’s “quarters.” And when they died, most were buried here in a small patch of earth, for blacks only.

Ernest J. Gaines, 77, the acclaimed author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” is part of the fifth generation of this family to be born on the River Lake plantation. But unlike his ancestors, many of whom had nothing during their lives and were buried in unmarked wooden boxes that have since decayed, Mr. Gaines has built and owns his own house on the old plantation. He and his wife, Dianne Saulney Gaines, 70, a retired lawyer, have rescued the cemetery from near oblivion and they intend to be buried here themselves.

Mr. Gaines has put down his pen — he wrote the first draft of all his novels in longhand — in the belief that he has “nothing original left to say.” He chronicled life in rural southern Louisiana, in a fictional version of this plantation, and his people, he said, showed him the meaning of dignity. As his friend Wendell Berry, the writer, once observed, he and Mr. Gaines “knew the talk of old people, old country people, in summer evenings.” Mr. Gaines’s goal now is to honor them by keeping up the cemetery....

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