Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cane River by Lalita Tademy Review

If you are looking for historical fiction that focuses on the lives and struggles of African American women, I highly recommend picking up Cane River. Lalita Tademy has turned her family story into a fictionalized account of three generations of women who have each faced physical and emotional trauma with strength, dedication to family, and a burning need to move their families forward. When faced with no choice but to physically submit themselves to the men who hold the power of life and death over them, each woman ultimately does what she feels is best for the resulting children. 

The means by which the family is moved forward is by bleaching the line through the generations. This process isn't truly by choice, but these strong women use whatever advantages that they can grasp for their children. Suzette and Philomene never actually have a choice in who the father of their children will be, but their perseverance, resourcefulness, and pure grit is impressive. Having modern sensibilities, it is upsetting to know that the skin color helped to define the hopes of a mother for her children. Yet, women with no power over their own bodies and futures had to maneuver and manipulate advancement as best they could. 

It was Emily's story, the last generation delved into in Cane River, that was the most heartbreaking for me. Emily had a taste of love, even though it was a tarnished one. Emily's desire to just be without being harassed for simply existing, and being audacious enough to attract and acquire love from a white man, was what made her an even larger target for savage mistreatment. Tademy actually had me feeling sorry for a man who couldn't defend a family that he knew would never be accepted. Even though I felt compassion for Joseph, his arrogance and sense of entitlement is what led to his downfall and eventually cost him everything. Both Emily and Joseph were naive in their belief that they could be left alone to live as they wished, but especially Joseph. As a white male living in their community after the Civil War, he should have know that he could not be a successful businessman and expect others not to balk at the idea of him having a woman with even a trace of black blood. The ending of the book had me upset knowing that after all that Emily had endured and survived, society still made sure that she knew her place. 

However, toward the end there is a bit of joy given to me via the choice of Emily's son T.O. to break the line by his choice of a wife. It was a step that not only set him apart as a man who thinks for himself, but also a step to break the cycle that T.O. saw as destroying his own sense of self worth. Ya'll....There is so much to experience in Cane River!

I generally have bad luck with Oprah Book Club picks, however Cane River was a home run for me and is going on my favorite reads list. I am so glad that I grabbed this one when I saw it my local Goodwill for only a dollar. Spending a dollar and discovering a new favorite read is about as good as it gets! Reading this one makes me wish that I belonged to an organized book club so that I could discuss all of the issues and feelings that Tademy evoked. This was a hard review to rein in. It would be so easy to write a review on each woman featured! Cane River is a very well paced read that will hit you in all of the feels and provides food for thought long after you close the cover. I am now going to have to get a copy of Red River, which focuses on the Tademy side of the family.

(Synopsis from Goodreads)

Lalita Tademy's riveting family saga chronicles four generations of women born into slavery along the Cane River in Louisiana. It is also a tale about the blurring of racial boundaries: great-grandmother Elisabeth notices an unmistakable "bleaching of the line" as first her daughter Suzette, then her granddaughter Philomene, and finally her great-granddaughter Emily choose (or are forcibly persuaded) to bear the illegitimate offspring of the area's white French planters. In many cases these children are loved by their fathers, and their paternity is widely acknowledged. However, neither state law nor local custom allows them to inherit wealth or property, a fact that gives Cane River much of its narrative drive.

The author makes it clear exactly where these prohibitions came from. Plantation society was rigidly hierarchical, after all, particularly on the heels of the Civil War and the economic hardships that came with Reconstruction. The only permissible path upward for hard-working, ambitious African Americans was indirect. A meteoric rise, or too obvious an appearance of prosperity, would be swiftly punished. To enable the slow but steady advance of their clan, the black women of Cane River plot, plead, deceive, and manipulate their way through history, extracting crucial gifts of money and property along the way. In the wake of a visit from the 1880 census taker, the aged Elisabeth reflects on how far they had come.

When the census taker looked at them, he saw colored first, asking questions like single or married, trying to introduce shame where there was none. He took what he saw and foolishly put those things down on a list for others to study. Could he even understand the pride in being able to say that Emily could read and write? They could ask whatever they wanted, but what he should have been marking in the book was family, and landholder, and educated, each generation gathering momentum, adding something special to the brew.

In her introduction, Tademy explains that as a young woman, she failed to appreciate the love and reverence with which her mother and her four uncles spoke of their lively Grandma 'Tite (short for "Mademoiselle Petite"). She resented her great-grandmother's skin-color biases, which were as much a part of Tademy's memory as were her great-grandmother's trademark dance moves. But the old stories haunted the author, and armed with a couple of pages of history compiled by a distant Louisiana cousin, she began to piece together a genealogy. The result? Tademy eventually left her position as vice president of a Fortune 500 company and set to work on Cane River, in which she has deftly and movingly reconstructed the world of her ancestors. --Regina Marler

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