Cane River (Tademy)

Cane River 
Lalita Tademy, 2001
Grand Central Publishing
584 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780446615884

Mingling historical fact with fiction, Lalita Tademy's epic novel is based on the lives of four generations of African American women and is the result of years of exhaustive research and an obsessive odyssey to uncover her family's past. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Her own words:
Writing fiction is a deeply personal undertaking—creating complex characters, getting them in and out of fixes, spinning tales inevitably based on one's own interpretations of life. In order to create a compelling story the writer must transport him- or herself into the work. But writing about family members, even when most of them have been dead and buried for nearly a century, as I did in my first novel, Cane River, a fictionalized saga about four generations of colored Creole slave women, carried additional challenges.

All writers face the risk of revealing more about themselves and their worldviews than they might intend. In cases like my own they must also worry about disclosing more than their family might be comfortable with and interpreting this personal history differently from other relatives. The writer might be accused of employing a thinly disguised description of one or all family members, and they may not be happy about it. It makes for interesting family gatherings.

I came to fiction writing late, after a long corporate management career. Cane River was the first word-related project I had undertaken in years that didn't have a business plan attached. (To be fair, in retrospect, some of those business plans did have fictional elements associated with them.) I had to adjust quickly to the harsh reality that if a writer doesn't do it (whatever it is), it doesn't get done. There are no backup teams ready in the wings, no motivational speeches to deliver, no need for "all-hands" meetings where you gather everyone who works for you to outline expectations. All I really needed was a spiral notebook (narrow ruled), a plentiful supply of pens (Uniball blue ink, Sanford fine point), and a minimum of three dedicated hours a day. Every day.

On the one hand, as a first-time novelist it was helpful to tell a story shaped by real places, real people, and real events. On the other, trying to recount the circumstances surrounding a fiery 1907 newspaper editorial about my ancestors, entitled "The Sin of Miscegenation," left me so emotionally spent that for weeks I was afraid I wouldn't be able to communicate anything at all.

I wrote the entire manuscript for Cane River in longhand first. I found it impossible to tackle the virgin page on a computer, as if my brain couldn't override the numbing power of that blinking cursor without handwritten crib notes. I had to spend extra hours in the afternoon or evening after the day's creative purge typing work into the desktop for subsequent editing. The old, efficient me (corporate) was appalled by the wasted time and effort, but the newly emerging right-brained me (writer) reluctantly accepted the limitations and went with the flow.

I will admit to having been surprised by the things that I found the craft of writing was not. It wasn't channeling, divine inspiration, predictable, or fun. It was wonderfully exciting when a character took the narrative in directions I hadn't anticipated, but that character always refused to hand me the descriptive words I secretly hoped for.

When I finished writing Cane River, I was enormously satisfied that it captured the story of four such remarkable women from my past. Writing is personal, sometimes wrenching, often drudgery, but I have to admit, when I held the first finished copy of the book in my hand, the agony vanished, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. (Courtesy of Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
A long-overdue response to Alex Haley's is about the way the past haunts the emotions and politics of the everyday and about the quiet unmapped stories that make up history.
San Francisco Chronicle

Will haunt you long after you've shared their stories if suffering, abuse, with fascinating detail...powerful in its story-telling...a journey well worth taking.
San Jose Mercury

(Audio version.) Like the river of its title, Tademy's saga of strong-willed black women flows from one generation to the next, from slavery to freedom. Elisabeth is a slave on a Creole plantation, as is her daughter, Suzette. The family, based on Tademy's own ancestors, wins freedom after the Civil War, but Suzette's daughter, Philomene, must struggle to keep her family together and to achieve financial independence. The melodious, expressive voices of narrators Belafonte and Payton are a pleasure to listen to, while Moore's tougher, grittier tone conveys the hardships faced by the family. However, Belafonte and Payton sometimes ignore vocal directions provided by the novel. For example, Payton reads one passage in a whisper even though the text says "in her excitement, Philomene's voice rose... louder and louder." The complex, multigenerational tale suffers somewhat in abridgment: at times the narrative too abruptly jumps ahead by decades and some emotional situations are given short shrift, as when Philomene discovers that her daughter Bette, whom she was told died as a baby nearly 20 years earlier, is actually alive and living nearby. Still, the audio succeeds in evoking the struggles of black women to provide better lives for their children despite all odds.
Publishers Weekly

Tademy halted a career as a high-powered technology executive to research her family's history. Her findings--four generations of strong-willed black women who survived slavery and racial injustices, maintained strong family ties, and left a legacy of faith and accomplishment—are transformed here into a powerful historical novel.... [A] fascinating account of American slavery and race-mixing should enthrall readers who love historical fiction. Vanessa Bush

A selection of Oprah's Book Club, this fictionalized family history, telling of four generations of slave women living on Cane River in Louisiana from 1834 until the early 20th century, tells a larger story of how the lives of white people and black people were enmeshed during those times. The author created this novel after immersing herself in her own family's history. She includes actual photographs of her family members who became characters in the novel, pictures of documents, gravestones, and news articles—every scrap of which adds enormously to the power of this work. Tademy sticks closely to actual facts but because she creates dialogue and has to flesh out the characters, she is careful to call the work fiction. White and black people lived together, worked together, had children together —but not as equals. The slaves had little choice. In this family, Elizabeth had come to Louisiana, sold from a plantation in Virginia, where she had two babies as a result of her white master's sexual advances. She had no choice, of course, but to leave those babies behind in Virginia. Her grief and that experience are repeated again and again as she helps her daughters and granddaughters face their own life circumstances. Her daughter Suzette barely reaches puberty when she is impregnated by a visiting Frenchman. Suzette's daughter Philomene (half white) has a fulfilling "marriage" with another slave, but he is sold away so that Philomene can become the mistress of the owner. Philomene's daughter Emily (white except for one black grandmother) is pampered by her white father. After the Civil War, she is educated, and once grown, has what essentially is a long marriage to a white Frenchlandowner. The marriage isn't legal, because miscegenation is a crime, but a home and many children are part of Emily's experience. Oddly enough, those relationships that were taken as a matter of course during slavery, in the Jim Crow South became a moral outrage to the white citizens. Eventually Emily's happiness is destroyed because of this threat—literally, her children and home are endangered if she continues to live openly with a white man. This novel will interest all those who enjoy family histories. The women are tough and loving—they face impossible situations with courage and intelligence. Their priorities are to keep their families as intact as possible, and to manipulate white people as much as they can for this purpose. The very fact that the author is part of this long history adds to its great appeal. And the actual family photographs and documented history add a great deal to the narrative. Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults.

Discussion Questions
1. Philomene says that to be a slave was "to have nothing but still have something left to lose." Discuss the profound, but different, losses suffered by each generation of women.

2. The relationships between Suzette, Philomene and Emily and the white fathers of their children range from flat-out rape, to calculated financial arrangements cemented by childbearing, to real, if forbidden and dangerous love. What did you find most surprising about these often complex relationships?

3. Do you think Doralise was in a position to help Suzette and Philomene more than she did?

4. Cane River dramatizes the roots of turmoil within America's black community on issues of skin color. Emily, for example, is described by the author as being "color-struck." In what ways does color-consciousness continue to afflict black and mixed-race societies today? How, in Cane River, was the color-struck attitude a help or hindrance in successive generations' rising fortunes?

5. During the course of researching Cane River, as she kept unearthing tender relationships in unexpected situations, Tademy found herself frequently being forced to rethink some long-held beliefs about slavery. What, if anything, surprised you most about the relationships described in the book? In which ways did you find Tademy's depictions believable? Upsetting? Eye-opening?

6. Cane River was a community made up of French planters, slaves and gens de couleur libre, or free people of color who "had accumulated a great deal of land and wealth and were just as likely to be slave owners as their white neighbors." How do you think the free people of color justified playing a willful role in their kinsmen's oppression?

7. The free people of color considered themselves neither black nor white. Can you think of any parallels in today's society?

8. Each of the four women in the book approached life differently and handled the relationships to the men and children in their lives very differently. Discuss the differences.

9. Do you think that each of the women was a good mother? Was there more that any one of them could have done for their children than they did?

10. How-or did-each of the women fight against the oppression of their lives? Do you think there was more that Elisabeth or Suzette in particular could have done?

11. Philomene seems to be the strongest of the women. If you agree with this statement, what do you think accounts for her unusual strength? If you disagree, why-and who do you think was actually the strongest? The weakest?

12. Philomene coldly made a choice to stay with Narcisse Fredieu after he returned to Cane River following the Civil War. At this point, she was now free. Why, then, would she make this decision?

13. Suzette changed her last name three times. Why was this so significant to her?

14. Did Joseph Billes do everything he could to protect Emily and their children? Did Emily do everything possible to protect her children?

15. Elisabeth called all of her descendants to her bedside when she knew she was dying? What were the long-term repercussions of this act for her family?

16. Sunday dinners were a major event in Cane River. What made them so important? Family dinners, in which generations come together on a regular basis, seem to be a dying tradition in this country. What effect do you think this has on families today?

17. Cane River was a community with both rigid hierarchies and notable exceptions to these hierarchies. Do you think that Cane River's historical divisions of class, race and gender have contemporary parallels?

18. What are the similarities and differences between Cane River of the l800s and the United States today?

19. In many ways, Cane River, a rural farming community established by French Catholics, was unlike other southern communities of the time. What did you find most surprising about the community and its leading citizens?

20. Each of the four major women characters in Cane River was born a slave, but even so, each made distinct choices regarding how she was going to live her life. What were their choices? What were the other options they might have chosen?

21. When Madame slaps Suzette in the cookhouse, Elisabeth doesn't interfere, nor does she have a heart-to-heart conversation afterward with her daughter about what happened? Why not? Was this realistic?

22. What do you think would have happened to each of the main characters if they has not been so deeply rooted in family?

23. Which living situation do you think was easier: big house or quarter?

24. Emily, in the very last scene in the book, takes a seat in the front row of the bus to return home from her trip to town. Is this something you believe she would do? Why or why not?

25. Elisabeth, Suzette and Philomene don't talk about slavery with Emily, who was too young to remember slave life. In fact, they don't talk much about those times with one another. How does this avoidance shape them and affect the younger generation?

26. When Joseph moves Emily out of the house where they raised their children in order to marry a white woman, Emily asks to take only those things she considers to be her possessions. Was this foolish pride that possibly deprived her children of a larger inheritance?

27. Joseph stays close to Emily in his later years. Why do you think Emily continued to allow Joseph into her life after he kicked her out of their home and married another woman?

28. Emily's daughters Mary and Josephine never marry, and her son T.O. married a woman radically different than his mother. What do you think this says about the long-reaching effects of Emily's choices and behavior as a mother?

29. Elisabeth says that everyone along Cane River was 'waiting for the spider to come home." What did she mean?

30. The author of Cane River made the decision to turn her family's story into a work of fiction rather than nonfiction? What do you think motivated her to do so, and do you think it was the right decision?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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