I love history and I love genealogy. Lalita Tademy was able to put the two together in this wonderful novel based on her own family history. Cane River begins with the Elisabeth, a slave who was separated from her Virginia family and sold to a Louisiana plantation. What follows is three more generations of creole women who strive to keep their families on solid footing amidst the chaos of slavery, war and discrimination.
I can’t say enough good things about this book. I watched an interview with Ms. Tademy after reading it and she said she deliberately left out a slave story that consisted of physical brutality, because she didn’t want to detract from the emotional price paid by slavery. “No whips and chains” read a placard she made for herself over her writing desk. I found that she achieved her goal – I was completely focused on the central value of these women: keeping the family together and keeping the family safe.
The challenges these women faced were extraordinary, and the choices they made sometimes seems inconsistent with our 21st century values. Why would Philemon keep having children with the man who raped her once she was no longer a slave? Reality is often very complex, and if we look at her options in the context of her values, we begin to see how much she sacrificed for family.
Another example is the value they placed on having a lighter skin color. Again, these women understood that in their world, opportunities existed for lighter-skinned Negroes that did not exist for darker.
I also appreciated Tademy’s efforts to present the white men in the lives of these women in a more realistic way. How they could love their colored family and yet still hold racist attitudes, seems contradictory, but yet is truth. She also deftly portrayed the pressures that existed for these men to abandon their colored families.
This book represents a portrait of America is not often talked about. Human relationships amidst slavery and racial discrimination are not black and white (no pun intended!), and when reading a book like this, we begin to see how skin color truly does not define us.
3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2001