First things first: the full title is "A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau." But that wouldn't all fit in the blog title line, so here we go.
The author, Carolyn Morrow Long, does a fine job of digging through historical records and separating the hype from the facts. In the end, she finds that there isn't much there. Most of the lurid mythology swirling around Laveau originated in late 19th Century yellow journalism and early 20th Century sensationalism. If anything, Laveau seems to have only done a little charm-making as a side business, and perhaps held some fairly high-test out-of-church prayer meetings. But in the conclusion of the book, Long tells the real truth, not so much about Laveau but about her chroniclers:
What we can piece together from the published sources and oral histories is a silhouette of Marie Laveau, her mere outline, lacking all the detail and color of a real portrait. Tantalizingly incomplete, she is perhaps even more magnetic than she would be if fully known. Her enigma tempts us to shape her to our will, and her image has evolved over time in response to the shifting prejudices, fantasies, and desires of those who look for her. As a mirror, Marie tells us more about the era from which she is observed than she does about herself. She remains untouched and unknown, secure in her enduring aura of mystery. [emphasis added]Wow. What a great book, and what a great job Long did in tracking down all of the major legends, tracking down the actual facts, laying it all out, then (finally!) summarizing only what is known – in a very spare five pages. I added the bold emphasis in the quoted paragraph, because it is this tendency to distort Laveau by one's own biases that has given rise to her legend. Honestly, this book is more of a historical slice of New Orleans than a work on either Laveau or Voudou. Don't let that stop you, it's a great mystery read. (Thanks, V.)
Finally, a post like this wouldn't be any good without the obligatory links to:
the book itself at Amazon
the Wikipedia page on Laveau,
and to the page on New Orlean Voudou, which seems to be pretty weak coffee in comparison to the Haitian variety.