US History 1610 Book Review April 27, 2003 Tademy, Lalita. Cane River. New York: Warner Books, 2001. Cane River is a familial saga that tells the story of the author's ancestors. The story begins in 1834 with story of Suzette, the author's great-great grandmother. She is a slave living in the Cane River area of Louisiana.
Tademy tells Suzette's story for about twenty years, including her trials and tribulations of being a house slave on a medium-size Creole plantation. Suzette is raped by Eugene Durant, a Frenchman who is related to her owner. She eventually has two children by this man, one of whom is a daughter named Philomene. After Philomene becomes a teenager, the story shifts to tell her story. Narcisse Fre dieu, another relative of Philomene's owner, becomes smitten with her, and even though he is quite older than she, wealthy, and a white man, they eventually have eight children together. The oldest of the eight children is Emily.
Emily is born in 1861, right before the emancipation of the slaves. She is the first daughter in this line of females that will never know what it is like to be someone else's property. She is sent to New Orleans to boarding school to learn to read and write, things her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother never knew how to do. She falls in love with Joseph Bills, one of her father's friends, and he returns her affections deeply. They eventually move in together despite the misgivings of her family. Mixing of the races was not tolerated at all during the reconstruction period.
After having five children and living together for twenty years, Emily was forced to move out and into another home because of the escalating threats to her family's life. Joseph never quit loving his children though, and came by to see them whenever he could until his death several years later. The central theme to this book is the importance of family and how the strength of those ties unites its members. I believe that the telling of the saga in three separate "stories" allows the reader to understand the progression of this familial belief. The characters in the book are slaves, and since slaves have no real sense of security among themselves, they cherish their families strongly.
The knowledge of the possibility of being sold to far away plantations force the characters to cherish every moment they have together. The author describes this strong sense of family unity as: "there had been a time of being worked and sold, like an ox, with nothing to hold on to except each other over increasing distances. They bide d their time and collected themselves back together again as they were able, from up and down cane river and as far away as Virginia, because in family there was strength that couldn't be drawn from anywhere else" (297). I believe that another theme throughout the book is that of coming to terms with oneself. This idea is usually seen in discussions of the importance of color.
To each woman, the color of her skin was an important component of her self-esteem. Each equated whiter skin with greater self-esteem. To become accepting of her true identity required much soul searching and experiences. As an older woman, Emily walked and rode a bus for two hours to get to the nearest store to buy supplies. While she was checking out, she was pushed aside by a white woman entering and made to wait, simply because she was black.
While she did not lash out in anger, Emily quietly asserted her worth in the store when she walked out without making a purchase, head held high. The other women, as well, came to terms with who they are. Each woman, beginning with Suzette, had children with white men, and progressively their children were whiter and whiter with each generation. However, no matter how white the skin, to people who knew them, they were still black.
Elizabeth, Suzette's mother and the matriarch of the family, realized one day that, "five generations under one roof, all women, in an unbroken sequence, starting with her and descending down to Angeline [Emily's daughter]. From coffee, to cocoa, to cream, to milk, to lily. A conscious and not-so-conscious bleaching of the line" (296). The conscious bleaching of the line is referring to the white fathers these women had, and the not-so-conscious bleaching is their adoption of white ways, almost to the point of turning their back on their black heritage. Tademy describes in her prologue the extensive research she performed to write this book. She even hired a genealogist to help with the search for Philomene's mother.
It took her two years before she found the bill of sale in a private collection of French plantation records that positively identified Suzette as Philomene's mother. The author used both primary and secondary sources that included oral family history, census records, newspaper articles, death certificates, marriage licenses, and birth certificates. These sources are considered valid, however there are always discrepancies that can occur with oral history. The author's writing style is very clear and understandable. She is able to tell the story of three women in a way that the reader can easily follow. She introduces the book through a prologue in which she tells how she came to write this book.
The author's intended audience is the adult general public. I think that children would not really understand some of the themes such as rape, slavery, and murder. Oprah chose this book to be part of her book club, introducing this wonderful book to many readers who might never know of the book. Lalita Tademy grew up surrounded by many family members in California. As a child, she took many family vacations to Louisiana to visit her father's family. The stories of Emily's cooking, dancing, drinking, and dipping snuff always intrigued Tademy.
She wanted to find out more about Emily and the women that came before her. As her curiosity about her ancestors increased, her disillusionment with the corporate world grew. Tademy quit her career as the vice-president of Sun Microsystems in order to devote more time to her genealogical search for her family. Since she is telling her family's history, Tademy's perspective could have been skewed. I think that she pretty much told the story as truthfully as possible; however, the family history had dates that were off and some facts twisted, while the government documents also had inaccuracies in them as well.
After piecing together events from public and private sources, especially when they conflicted, Tademy relied on her own intuition. I first read Cane River two years ago after my mother recommended it. I was engrossed in the story of the women on the first reading. I did not think that I would be as interested in reading the book for a second time, but I was wrong. Reading it for the second time allowed me to focus in and remember events that I knew would have importance later in the story. I had the same feeling of not wanting to put it down again even on my second reading.
I have always enjoyed reading stories that shift midway to tell the story of another person because it is interesting to hear stories from a different perspective. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical sagas. I have given this book to others who also loved it as much as me. After finishing the book, I am sad that my glimpse into the lives of these women is over. So thus the only improvement that I would make to this book would be to make it longer. Tademy, Lalita.