Cane River by Lalita Tademy. Specifically it will contain a book report and analysis of the novel. This book represents Tademy’s first novel, and while it is a work of fiction, it represents the story of her family, compiled with exhaustive research and oral histories conducted by the author. She writes in her Author’s Note, “Revealed bit by bit from mounds of documents and family stories, I connected the line backward between the women of my family, daughter to mother.”
Thus, the novel follows the lives of four women, four generations from slave to author in the Can River area of Louisiana (and beyond). The author does not hide the fact this is a work of fiction, she celebrates it, along with her celebration of the lives she recreates to commemorate the women of her family that combined to make her who she is today.
Tademy writes of the Cane River area of Louisiana, where her family roots are located. Amazingly, the novel almost was not published. One reviewer notes, “Cane River, Tademy’s somewhat fictionalized, multigenerational saga of her mother’s Louisiana ancestors, began as a personal project, a book she planned to print up herself and distribute to her family as a keepsake.”
The author follows the story of four distinct, proud women that were her ancestors, beginning with Elisabeth, her great-grandmother, and Suzette, Elisabeth’s daughter. The novel opens in pre-Civil War Louisiana, where Elisabeth and Suzette are slaves to the Derbanne family on their plantation, Rosedew. As the novel progresses, Suzette grows from a child to a woman, begins a family through no fault of her own, and becomes increasingly attached to her children and keeping her family together.
Next, Tademy introduces Philomene and Emily, the daughter and granddaughter of Suzette. Each character moves the story and the era along, illustrating the changes in black women’s lives, and many of the similarities. It is heartbreaking to see how the women endured losing members of their family due to sales and death, and how they feared these family breakups more than anything. Again, the author weaves the thread of family throughout the novel, using it as the underlying historical theme and motive that ties the novel together and makes the reader continue to care what happens to these amazing women.
Ultimately, this book is a historical look at four strong women, but more importantly, it is a look at family and how it endures through the ages. Early in the book, Elisabeth tells Suzette, “You only get one family.”
Tademy acknowledges she became “obsessed” with finding out the details of her family in order to write this book, and that becomes clear as the theme of family is woven throughout the text. The author writes, “Since Gerant, Suzette had begun to think of Elisabeth as the strongest link in a growing chain.”
Tademy wants to share her ancestors with modern readers so they will have an even greater understanding of the roots of modern African-Americans and what their ancestors endured.
However, this is really a book about the importance of family and understanding your descendants, so you can better understand yourself. One reviewer notes, “Tademy’s ability to suspend judgement is central to the power of this book. In addition to portraying the lives of the women who came before her, she also allows us to peer into the minds of the whites whose lives mingled with theirs.”
She portrays each of her ancestors with aclarity but with sympathy, as well, and she refuses to stereotype the whites as continually brutish and unfair. Actually, the whites and blacks often work together, and just about everyone is kind to Suzette, giving her some very grand illusions for herself, at least for a while. Thus, the author breaks down some of the well-known stereotypes, showing a life that was still difficult and unfair, but perhaps not as horrible as many people thought. Another reviewer notes, “Tademy’s focus on the family decision-making of her female ancestors stands in sharp contrast to male-centered revisionist accounts of enslaved families clinging to the patriarchal traditions of pre-colonial Africa or doing their best to imitate White marriage patterns.”
The institution of slavery was wrong, but the author does attempt to show both sides of the story in relevant terms, so the reader can make up their own mind about the white and black experience during the slavery period in American history.
This book seems to make the historical periods the author uses seem to come alive for the reader, partly because of the author’s lyrical and expressive writing style. Early in the book she writes of the slave quarters, “But Saturday, after half-day labor, the quarter came alive with each household working their own patch garden, washing clothes, trading gossip, and bringing back fish or game along with stories of how they had caught it.”
The book alternately portrays the joys of plantation life, combined with the constant fear the plantation will fail and the families will be torn away from each other. Another reviewer notes, “In uncovering her own family history Tademy uses archival data to weave a poignant story of her African-American foremothers that dates back to the 1800s.”
Ultimately, the book does describe the essence of the historical periods it covers, both effectively and honestly. This is the first novel of Civil War history that has made this reader want to learn more about the truth of slavery, and to learn more about this remarkable family, as well. Perhaps the novel will someday turn into a made-for-television film, bringing it to life even more completely.
There were dozens of facts and tidbits of history buried in this novel, from how the families actually chose their names after Emancipation to details of the food they ate, the work they did, and how they viewed life around them. Tademy writes, “When for the first time they were allowed to create a last name for themselves, it was her mother, Elisabeth, and not Suzette who decided that the name would be Jackson. There was no hidden meaning to the choice, no long association with some significant event or person.”
Until reading this, it always seemed as if the slaves took their masters’ names or names from those they admired in history, and it is interesting to note that some names where simply taken on whim, without any hidden meaning or history at all. Sadly, while they could choose their names after they were free, they did not enjoy that luxury when they were slaves. Suzette’s first child, born after Eugene Durant rapes her on Christmas, is a boy she wants to call Philomon, but the family has already named the child Gerant, completely ignoring her wishes.
The book is full of facts like these, making it interesting, if not fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in American history and the history of slavery in the country. Reviewer Robinson continues, “Her telling offers fresh insights about Creole life, the foods, language, and customs and certainly of life in captivity. Black captives, for instance, had to secure permission from their “owners” before accepting gifts.”
Often, just when the whites seem a little more palatable, the author throws in a fact like this, and the reader recognizes just how subjugated the slaves where, and what a terrible institution it was. This book makes black and white very real, and brings home a real sense of place, time, and fear for the reader. Ultimately, it makes the reader wonder how they would have managed in such a situation, and if they would have been able to be as brave and strong as the black people in this story. Today, it does not seem that many people of any color would be able to endure what these people were forced to endure, and still survive.
For example, it is notable that the slaves on Rosedew, anyway, enjoyed time off from work at Christmas, which shows that at least some owners were cognizant of their slaves and their hard work. Tademy writes, “[B]ut the rest was for the tables that had been set up in the barn, where the entire quarter would gather. On Christmas day everyone could have as much to eat as they wanted.”
Most slave histories revolve around the injustices and punishments doled out on slaves, while far fewer discuss some of their small joys and celebrations. It is also interesting to note that so many, just like Suzette, took on their masters’ religions, even though their lives held little true Christianity when they were beaten, worked to death, and treated as sub-humans, for the most part. Suzette embraces Catholicism, the religion of the Derbanne’s, even though she has no rights and no real hope of a future because of them, and that illustrates some of the juxtapositions of slavery the author exposes in this book.
It was also surprising that many of the plantation women were not educated, and when their husbands died, they were virtually helpless in a male-dominated world. When Louis Derbanne dies, he leaves a valid will, but his wife is not up to managing a plantation, and the fortunes of the family begin to slide. In effect, this white woman was little better off than the slaves they refused to educate, but of course, no one would ever admit that. The planters were not very smart, they did not take pains to ensure they had all the tools to hold on to their land, and the situation with Suzette and her family, and their eventual breakup, clearly indicates that.
Another surprising fact was the information that so many white men actually took responsibility for their mulatto families, as Derbanne did with at least some of the women who fathered his children, by freeing them at his death, and that there was much more of a caste system in Louisiana than just whites and blacks. There were the slaves, but there were free people of color (gens de couleur libre), Creoles (must be French-speaking descendents of early settlers, not mixed-race people), and of course, the whites in the area. Thus, there was an entire sub-culture of races and ethnicities in the area, many more than is often recognized or thought about when it comes to slave history in this area.
The strengths of this book are many. First, the author’s descriptions seem to transport the reader back in time to Louisiana throughout the decades. She can make the reader feel the heat, the hopelessness, and the anger of these women, along with their compassion and great joy in their families, as well. She writes, Philomene wouldn’t allow herself words, even with the babies. There was a freedom in not talking, an extra corner of calm to be gained by not having to participate fully in a world without Clement.”
She makes you feel the anguish and inequity of these characters when their lives are ripped apart, but she also writes of the area in the same lyrical way.
If there are any weaknesses to this book, they are that all the white men prey on black women (perhaps they did, but there had to have been some who did not), and that so many of her ancestors develop madness or some form of detachment, but it is easy to see why they do. It does not seem there are many inaccuracies in the history of the book, except of course that the author has used fictional license for much of the situations in the book, since she did not have personal accounts of many of the situations. Even so, the book and her ancestors bring history alive, a wonderful accomplishment for any book.
Bowman, David. “The Newcomers.” Book, January-February 2002, 31+.
Hill, Shirley a. “Marriage among African-American Women: A Gender Perspective.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 37, no. 3 (2006): 421+.
Richardson, Brenda. (2001). Cane River Book Review. [Online]. Available at: Findarticles.com Accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HST/is_3_3/ai_75121825on24 April 2008. 1-3.
Tademy, Lalita. Cane River. New York, Warner Books, 2001.
Lalita Tademy, Cane River. New York, Warner Books, 2001, x.
1. David Bowman, “The Newcomers,” Book, January-February 2002, 33.
Brenda Richardson, (2001). Cane River Book Review. [Online]. Available at: Findarticles.com Accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HST/is_3_3/ai_75121825on24 April 2008. 1.
Shirley a. Hill, “Marriage among African-American Women: A Gender Perspective,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 37, no. 3 (2006), 422.
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