The Plot: Charon, Mississippi, 1933. Two ten year old little girls are playing, Lee and Lily. One black, one white. One lie results in Lee’s father arrested and a lynching feared. To save her father, Lee leaves her familiar world behind for a world of monsters,a world just as dangerous as the segregated south she leaves behind.
The Good: The cover of Bayou shows two girls playing, one monster looking from the trees as a giant hand reaches up from the water. The darkness of Bayou is shown in the first few panels: the feet of a young African American boy, a tree, blood dripping, white men watching — a lynching. The reader is introduced to Lee and her father as they are paid to retrieve the body of the dead boy from the bayou. (Sound familiar? The dead boy, Billy, whistled at a white woman; the notes at the end show he was originally named Emmet.) When real monsters are later introduced in the fantastical world Lee enters, the reader cannot help but think that there were monsters in the world Lee has left behind.
When Lee’s white friend, Lily, loses her necklace, she fears a beating from her mother so accuses Lee of taking it. Lee is forced to work for Lily’s mother for free to make up the cost. Lily, realizing what she has done and wanting Lee to like her again, goes in search of the necklace. What the girls don’t know — but the reader does, from the artwork — is something lurks in the bayou, something monstrous that took Lily’s necklace when he reached for her throat and missed. When Lily again enters the bayou, the monster takes her as a horrified Lee watches. Lee’s father is arrested, blamed for her disappearance, Lee’s protests ignored. To save her father Lee must find Lily, so she enters the bayou and encounters the monsters and figures it contains.
There is the monster who ate Lily whole, Cotton Eye Joe. Billy, the boy who was lynched, has been transformed into a winged creature who offers some guidance. Bayou is large and scary, and Lee initially fears him, but she discovers he is good hearted and he risks his own life to help Lee. The fantasy world unfolds, clearly influenced by the real world and its historical terrors. Bayou is hunted by a cavalry of hounds wearing confederate uniforms. Jim Crows are actual crows.
Lee moves from one nightmare world, 1933 Mississippi, to one equally dangerous. In both worlds, she speaks up, takes action — in both, her goal is the same: save her father. Her chance of success is, ironically enough, more likely to happen in the supernatural world she enters. In the bayou, despite the dangers, Lee has more power and more allies than in the “real” world.