Monday, February 28, 2011

A Review: Cane River by Lalita Tademy

by: Tasha
Title: Cane River
Author: Lalita Tademy
Pages: 543
Publisher: Warner Books
ISBN-10: 0446615889
Rated: Ages 13+

Front Cover
Depicted on the cover is a woman who stands in front of a  house back in the late 1800-1900's.  From my perspective, it provides you with a sense of the time period in which the book takes place.  I believe the home belongs to one of the women whose amazing stories are told within this novel.  I used this picture as a reference point when reading pages of the book that described events that took place within a home setting.

The author of this book, Lalita Tademy, made a decision to give up her fortune 500 career to research her family's history after curiosity about her great grandmother (Philomene) and the generation of women before got the best of her.  What she discovered was a wealth of information which traced back to a Creole plantation along the Cane Rive in Louisiana.  Out of her research birthed the story of the lives of four strong willed women who lived during the time of slavery and experienced the contradiction of the freedoms that was granted to them by the Emancipation Proclamation in the late 1800's.  This book is a story of survival, strength, and determination to overcome the harsh realities they faced.

My thoughts...Let's recap.

I must commend the author on doing such a great job with developing the characters, as well as she did, based on the information she was able to find in her research.  Each of the main characters (Elizabeth, Suzette, Philomene, Emily "Tite") were very "real" to me.  It was as though I was experiencing their joy, sorrow, setbacks, and successes right along with them.  Each generation demonstrated power, ambition, and determination in very different ways, which I think was influenced by the time period in which each of them lived. 

Elizabeth. (Coffee) She was the beginning of the lineage; the backbone.  She worked in the cookhouse for the Derbannes (her slave owners)  preparing food for dinner, parties and any other special occasion that she was required to.  She had been previously owned by a slave family in Virginia and was sent to Cane River, forced to leave two children behind, because she was a threat to the women who husbands pursued and had her at their beck and call.  She married Gerasime and would later be sold away from the man she loved.

Suzette.  (Caramel) She is the daughter of Elizabeth and begins her journey quite ambitiously.  She is so very innocent to her place in the world as a slave and has big dreams of becoming a "gen de couleur libre" or a "free person of color".  She pursues this dream by aspiring to be like her godmother, Doralise Derbanne, who was born a slave child and freed by her father Louis Derbanne (yes, Suzette's slave owner) and given his last name.  She was considered royalty by some slaves because during that time slaves didn't have last names and they definitely weren't free.  However, in this town, there existed a small group of free people of color who did not refer to themselves as Negro or black and actually owned slaves themselves.... *blank stare*
Suzette was taught to cook like her mother and because of her fair skin complexion, she worked as a hand maiden in the house to her mam'zelle-Oreline, unlike her other siblings who worked in the fields.  Suzette was also allowed to partake in church activities, taking communion along with Oreline.
Well, as you would know it, all her dreams came to an abrupt end as the reality of not who she was, but what she was (a slave girl) came rushing in like a tornado.  Her innocence was stolen by a man (Eugene Daurat) more than twice her age, having two children before she was 16.  She grew up working along side her mother working in the cookhouse until sold away from one of her children to her previous mam'zelle-Oreline.

Philomene. (Cream) She is the daughter of Suzette, who was fathered by a Frenchman named Eugene Daurat.  She too had dreams of being free and married to the man she loved-Clement.  Clement was a slave boy who she grew up with on the plantation where they were previously owned and were now separated by only a few miles.  They were allowed to marry, consent given by their owners, and had two children.  All seemed perfect until once again, reality strikes, and Clement is sold away because of the selfish desires of another Frenchman-Narcisse Fredieu.  Narcisse, who grew up with Suzette (Suzette's mother), had wanted Philomene for himself for a long time and objected to her marrying Clement.  With Clement gone, a child lost to yellow fever, and her heart broken, Philomene picks up the pieces by developing a master plan that would re-unite her entire family if implemented correctly.  During this time, the Emancipation Proclamation had  became law and slaves were now free and many worked as share croppers. She had several children with Narcisse Fredieu, all that she loved dearly.   Each set the stage for her plan to have her own land, house, money, and her entire family in the end. But there was one child in particular who played a key role to the plan that Philomene successfully implemented-Emily. 

Emily or "Tite". (Milk)  Emily was a very small, lovely child.  She was the first of the lineage to be born "free" and did not have the association to slavery as the women before her.  They actually kept the harsh realities from Emily purposefully because they did not want to expose her to the life they knew before and wanted her to achieve more than they ever were able to.  And she did.  Emily learned to read and write and was a great dancer.  She loved and had several children with Frenchman, Joseph Billes.  Joseph loved her and would have married her if they had been permitted to.  However, it was against the law for "black" and "french" to marry, although Emily could have easily passed for white.  Their lives were hard. Fighting those who did not agree with their relationship had a big affect on their relationship.  Joseph would eventually feel forced to marry white in order to protect those he loved.  He was later murdered at the hand of his own people because of that very love he had for them.

I found it quite motivating, but not surprising, that the women in this book were the backbone of the family.   Honestly, what choice did they have?  Not only did they birth and raise the children, they also farmed the land, made business deals, saved money, planned their future, and carried it all out.  This book revealed a side of slavery from a woman's perspective that I had not quite grasped.   Yes, I have read about slavery in many history books and have watched films/documentaries about it as well.  But there was a certain closeness, to both the time and to the people, that I was able to experience that made me thankful for the freedoms that I have as a black woman today.  The struggles they endured, the impossible decisions they had to make, are all things that I find difficult to imagine.

As you may have noticed, each woman had a color description next to their names (described by the author) which indicated their shade in skin color.  Beginning from the color of coffee (Elizabeth) to milk (Emily) you can see the transition that occured within their lineage.  The mindset of slaves pertaining to color during the time of slavery was that lighter skin was privledge because they were often tolerated treated a lot better than those blacks that were darker skinned.  This mentality still exists today, believe it or not, among some black people and has had many negative affects on the race as a whole. 
I believe the author describes each of them in this manner so that the reader can understand how skin color played a huge part of survival.  It determined where you worked, how you were treated, and who pursued you as a suitor.  Because skin color was regarded so highly among these women, they encouraged them to have children with men who were french or fairer in skin complexion.  By the time we read about Emily, she faintly resembles her Negro roots and could easily pass for a French woman or caucasion altogether.
I must admit, this was one of the hardest things I found myself dealing with while reading this book.  Because the time I live in is different,  I found myself upset at the fact they wanted to erase a part of who they were.  That they associated being dark skinned with being bad or negative is very disturbing.  However, I had to step back and look at the time in which they lived and try to understand that they felt that this was necessary in order to survive; to be treated better; to be feel privledged. In the end, they still were not accepted by those who were French, caucasion and even some among the black race resented their actions.

Other than reading through the many difficult harsh experiences, I found the book easy to read.  The plot is easily understood, the characters are well developed, and the ending left you wanting to know more about this family.  I would recommend this book to not only black women, but women in general because of the strength that each one of them demonstrated.  I find their strength to be inspiring and will refer back to how they each endured and overcame their struggles to motivate myself when dealing with difficult situations of my own.

My recommendation is.... 5 pages

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