In the early 1990s, Lalita Tademy was a vice-president of a major Silicon Valley technology company. She stepped down from her position in 1995, distracted by a "nagging and unmanageable itch" to learn about her family's past. She did extensive research, traveling to Louisiana to interview historians and family members. She poured over records, in English and French, discovering the names of her distant relatives. Through a combination of research, historical fact and family lore, Tademy offers a work of fiction based on the women of Cane River.
The book is divided into three sections (titled Suzette, Philomene and Emily) symbolizing the passage of time through several generations. Suzette is Philomene's mother. Philomene is Emily's mother. Emily is the great-grandmother of the author.
Tademy's story begins in Cane River, Louisiana in 1834. Suzette is a nine year-old, enslaved along with her parents, on the Derbanne Plantation. As a child she longs for a better life of freedom, which would entail becoming part of the gens de couleur libre.
Years later, fate intervenes and Suzette is approached by a white French man. His insistence for sex produces two children, the youngest being Philomene who picks up the story in the second portion.
At time moves on, the plantation is dissolved and the family of slaves is divided by sale. Philomene also has children with a white man, further blurring the color line. One of these children is Emily, the subject of the final section.
Emily is a small child when slavery is abolished. She has little memory of her family's past, and her parents are determined to give her the best upbringing possible. As an adult, her heart and her children belong to a white man she cannot marry.
The final pages of the book follow Emily's son, T.O. There is a brief mention of T.O.'s daughter, Willie Dee, who is also Lalita Tademy's mother. Cane River ends with Emily's death in 1936.
Tademy's decision to quit her job in order to write a book was quite ambitious, but the effort pays off within the pages. Though the work is predominantly fiction, the author has provided several pictures of her relatives some of which are characters in the book. Tademy also provides a seven generation family tree which is helpful for identification of the many descendants named in the story.
Though a large chunk of Cane River takes place during the years leading up to the Civil War, the story doesn't concentrate on slavery as a subject. Rather, Tademy focuses her tale on the strong women of her past.
This book takes an unusual look at race and place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Louisiana. The great majority of Tademy's descendants are of mixed race. In Cane River the women bore the children of white men. Some were obligated to as part of their slave duties. Some did so willingly out of affection that couldn't be legitimized in the church.
Tademy spends a great deal of time focusing on the different hues. As the generations descended, the offspring became lighter and lighter. Some relatives even left town to start anew and "pass" as white. It seems Emily had a preoccupation with light skin and the author admits it bothers her. There are several references to bleaching including this passage:
Five generations under one roof, all women in an unbroken sequence. From coffee, to cocoa, to cream, to milk to lily. A conscious and not-so-conscious bleaching of the line.
Tademy has struck the lottery with her first novel, as Oprah has granted Cane River the golden "O" and awarded the novel the coveted Book Club status. I've never been one to run out and buy Oprah's picks, I do see the benefits of discussing this book in a group setting. Readers can't help but be moved by the story, and the inclusion of pictures makes the experience more touching. Hearing what others think of the past events and Tademy's interpretation of her family's perception of color could make for interesting book club discussion.
Oprah's books have registered hit or miss with me in the past, but I am grateful she introduced Cane River to readers. Tademy's work is incredibly moving. Her incorporation of family photos and historic documents only heightens the attachment readers have to these women. They may be fictitious in this novel, but they walked this earth once upon a time. I am thankful Lalita Tademy took the time to introduce her family to the world.