Cane River is a fictional account of Tademy's father's maternal ancestors. Some
may consider the novel a history lesson whereas others might experience déjà vu. She
takes us back nearly 150 years to the time of slavery and proceeds to fill us in with details from that era (hence this becoming
a work of fiction). The book is narrated largely from a third person point
of view so the reader feels like an observer watching as the drama unfolds. Depending on the readers interpretation, it can
be argued that this technique kept the narrative somewhat emotionless. Tademy
succeeded to keep the novel on a factual level by referencing and displaying historical artifacts (actual bills of sale for
her slave ancestors, receipts, slave owner journals, photos of her ancestors, etc.).
This reviewer thinks that this approach lends more credibility to the story and allows the reader to extract the truth
from the facts without blaming or judging any of the characters--characters who were real people in a very different time
Lalita Tademy's family tree has been traced back seven generations but the plot of Cane River centers around four generations
of slave women: Elisabeth born 1799, Suzette born 1825, Philomene born 1841 and
Emily born was actually born free in 1861. These were tumultuous times in American
History and Tademy does not drown the reader with Civil War details or lecture us on the horrors of slavery, instead she recreates
the surroundings of 1800's Cane River Louisiana and educates the reader on what was the considered the societal norms with
regards to class struggles between White, French, Creole, Mulatto, Quadroon, Black, views on race mixing, the different bonds
between slaves and slave owners, and the perceived quest for freedom.
This book in not just
'another slave story'. Cane River only hints at the effects and horrors of slavery
on the black female psyche: children, lovers, and spouses sold on a whim never to be seen again, sexual abuse from their owners,
and physical abuse/scorn from the mistresses. The focus of Cane River was how these women coped/survived in these horrid situations. Because of the "lighter-skin-is-better-than-darker-skin" color complex ingrained in
slaves, many of the author's female descendants believed and taught those who were closer to white in appearance were more
privileged. It is the old "house slave versus the field slave mentality", a complex that is still discussed in today's intellectual
The multiracial offspring
were repeatedly told that they were 'of quality'. As a result, many desired to keep the color line as light as possible and
they willingly chose to mate with white men, often within their own lineage,
to perpetually lighten the line. These women were able to "privilege" themselves
by having property and houses deeded to them by these Frenchmen. However, local
and state miscegenation laws and robbed them of the property and inheritance that they and their descendents were entitled
to receive. So although they were free with light skin and straight hair, society
still chose to disenfranchise, deny, scorn, and relegate them to second-class citizenry status (just like other darker skinned
African Americans). Quite simply and sadly, despite their foremothers best efforts
and intentions, they were not considered White by mainstream society, no matter how light they were in appearance.
Eventually one of
the male offspring fled after freedom was established so that he could 'pass', while one of the males (Tademy's grandfather)
chose to remain on Cane River and eventually married a dark skinned woman. From the pictures of the authors' descendants
included in the book, it appears that it would have been easy for many of them to have fled in order to pass as white and
live a life free of discrimination. However, it was very interesting to learn that many remained on Cane River as a family
unit even though everyone in the region knew their history.
This book was an interesting
easy read that followed a chronological progression of Tademy's lineage. It
was divided up into chapters that spoke of each womans life complete with a family tree reference at the beginning of each
chapter. Cane River was touching and engrossing.
It is apparent that her family's ancestors wanted the same freedom and respect that all slaves craved. This is a story of another means to capture the prize. We think Philomene would have been exceptionally
proud of her great granddaughter's success in business and reverence to family with this novel.
This book contains rape scenes and adult situations.
The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Cane
4 out of 5 stars.
We welcome your comments and thoughts about this book review. Please e-mail
us at this address: NubianCircleClub@aol.com.