Cane River (2001)

by Lalita Tademy

Lalita Tademy left a successful corporate career to research her family history in rural Louisiana. Around the nuggets of historical fact and oral tradition she unearthed, Tademy produced a well-written, engaging debut novel that covers 100 years in the lives of four generations of black women. Beginning with a pre–Civil War ancestor and extending into the 1930s with her great-grandmother, Tademy chronicles Southern black life during slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.  

The story takes place along the Cane River in Louisiana, where Elisabeth, Tademy’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, was brought as a house slave on a French plantation. Succeeding chapters feature Elisabeth’s daughter Suzette, Suzette’s daughter Philomene, and Philomene’s daughter Emily. The circumstances of their each bearing children by white men differ from rape to a love affair. Each generation becomes fairer-skinned, but none of them can escape prejudice, racist laws, and white vigilantism. Tademy portrays her foremothers as survivors rather than victims, however, and the overall message is about a family’s resilience, determination, and dignity as its members fight for economic independence and a secure future for their offspring.

Tademy used her genealogical research again for a subsequent novel, Red River (2007), about two black families struggling to make a place for themselves in Louisiana just after the Civil War.


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