Cane River

by Lalita Tademy

Published by Warner

418 pages, 2001


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Gone With the River

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

Imagine revisiting Margaret Mitchell's Tara around the time Atlanta was burning. Plantation owners fighting for a lifestyle. Trusted family retainers as confused as their owners about which way the wind was blowing. Sultry days and delicately scented nights at odds with the violence that rages not so far away. This time, however, the view is from the quarter rather than the manor and the differences are as eye-opening as the commonalties.

Of course, it's not Tara, or even Atlanta. First time novelist Lalita Tademy has set her epic at the foot of her own roots: Cane River: "a community that stretched nineteen miles along a river in central Louisiana where Creole French planters, free people of color, and slaves coexisted in convoluted and sometimes nonstereotypical ways."

Corporate climber Tademy was a vice-president at Sun Microsystems when her muse started screaming. As she writes in the Author's Note that precedes Cane River:

In 1995, driven by a hunger I could not name, I surprised myself and quit my job, walking away from a coveted position for which I had spent my life preparing. Crossing back and forth from California to Louisiana, I interviewed family members and local historians learning just how tangled the roots of family trees could become.

Cane River is a work of fiction "deeply rooted in years of research, historical fact, and family lore." Tademy has used that research as the superstructure of the work she has created, filling in the necessary blanks with possibilities and shots of her own intuition. Tademy's musings on "what might have been" are occasionally illustrated by bits of the past: newspaper clippings, bills of sale, photographs. The resulting book is a captivating blend of fact and fiction as well as proof positive from a bright, new talent.

The story begins in 1834 where we meet the cook Elisabeth and her nine-year-old daughter Suzette who is destined for service in the house, not the field. As she has been house raised, both maid and companion to the young ward of her employer, Suzette has a hunger for something other than what's on offer and is dismayed when her mother discourages her aspirations.

"You'll see the sense of our ways, the advantages of how we do things, after you've been here a while, Eugene," Suzette's owner tells a (free, white) newcomer from France. "The plantation is the fulfillment of God's design."

Though she lives to see freedom, Suzette's life is not easy and, after a time, when her master dies and her family is broken up, she discovers why her mother took such a circumspect stance.

In all, we chart seven generations of strong women -- from Suzette's mother Elisabeth all the way to author Tademy -- in a spellbinding matriarchal tale. Tademy colors all of the detail that history can not provide and her family story springs to life. Does Cane River illustrate precisely how it was for these women? It hardly matters, the author keeps us rapt with the texture she puts down.

A quibble: the skeleton of Tademy's story is epic and seems to beg a story of epic proportions. While the author embarks in that direction, around the middle of the book she seems to lose steam and never really recover. As I said: it's a quibble. Cane River is solid and well told: it's a very good book. However, the push that would have made it a great book -- the layers and depth that would have also made it a longer book -- are lacking. Aside from a summing up, the story ends at the early part of the 20th century. Had Tademy told all she wanted? Or is she holding the rest of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st back for a sequel? I suspect this might be the case. Really, however, it doesn't matter. Cane River is a well-conceived story that deals with a very important part of American history that has seldom been recreated in fiction with such grace and dignity. | April 2001

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.