Nubian Circle Book Club

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Cane River Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

Lalita Tademy is to be commended for this body of work based upon her family history.  She takes us to a place that dates back to a period of slavery in the Cane River region of Louisiana and leads us through time primarily following seven generations.  She reveals in her prologue that she, a former Fortune 500 executive, felt so compelled to research and document her lineage that she quit her high profile position to pursue just that.  Kudos to her for having the courage to fulfill her dream in the face of skeptics who dissuaded her.

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 and situation.

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 circles. 

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.

 Parental Warning:  This book contains rape scenes and adult situations.

 The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Cane River is

4 out of 5 stars.  We welcome your comments and thoughts about this book review.  Please e-mail us at this address: