Lalita Tademy had always been fascinated by stories of her great-grandmother Emily — a strikingly beautiful, high-spirited woman who had stared down adversity. As she set out to research her family's history, she discovered astonishing truths about her ancestors — proud and fiercely determined women born into slavery. The quest to understand the realities of their lives took her back to an isolated, close-knit community along a river in central Louisiana, where white plantation owners, free people of color, and slaves once coexisted in convoluted and often non-stereotypical ways. To her surprise, Tademy found herself walking away from a coveted job in Silicon Valley to tell the stories of the remarkable women of her past. The result is a compelling, heartfelt, and sweeping American saga, Cane River.
An epic work of fiction deeply rooted in historical fact, Cane River spans a hundred turbulent years to trace the lives of women who battled unspeakable injustices to create a legacy of hope and achievement. Opening in 1834 on a medium-size Creole plantation worked by French-speaking slaves, the novel boldly explores the intricate relationships between slaves and slave owners, and provocative issues of class and racism within the black community. With profound insight into the social hierarchies and everyday brutalities, the emotional complexities and agonizing choices, Tademy vividly captures the resilience and courage of four generations of flesh-and-blood women.
Also available as:
- Paperback, large print
- Time Warner Audio Book (abridged cassette)
Lalita Tademy left her job as vice-president of Sun Microsystems in 1995 to devote her energy to untangling the roots of her family tree and telling the remarkable story of her ancestors. The result is her first book, Cane River.
The Inevitable Telling of Cane River
My great grandmother Emily was born a slave in Cane River, just as the Civil War was beginning. Her mother Philomene, and her grandmother Suzette were also born there. Emily's great grandmother Elisabeth came from Virginia, not Louisiana, according to records I found, and she appeared in Cane River some time before 1820, when she was still in her teens. Cane River, the novel, is an attempt to capture the stories of these remarkable women.
A few years ago, after a long search, I found the Bill of Sale of my great great great great grandmother Elisabeth. In 1850, she was sold for at least the second time, away from her Cane River family, for $800. Holding a copy of that Bill of Sale in my hands was a life-changing event for me. By then, I had already left my very good job as a vice president for a high technology Fortune 500 company, for reasons I couldn't explain to anyone, even myself, and I was spending a majority of my time poring over old records and making research trips back to Louisiana from my home in California. I had spent almost two years obsessively researching my family tree. After finding that Bill of Sale, what had started as an absorbing and interesting project to chart my family's lineage suddenly became even more personal, in ways I could not have anticipated.
Looking backwards, my writing of Cane River seems inevitable, but in the beginning, I had no intentions of writing a book. But the more I dug, and the more facts I uncovered, the more the women of Cane River began to speak to me, one at a time. I had been toying with the idea of putting something down in print about my ancestors, but the Bill of Sale changed my internal debate away from whether I should write a book, and directed it toward how to tell the stories.
Cane River covers 137 years of my family's history, written as fiction, but deeply rooted in years of research, historical fact, and family lore. In piecing together events from personal and public sources, especially when they conflicted, I relied on my own intuition. There were gaps I filled in based on research into the events and mood of the place and time. I presupposed motivations. Occasionally, I changed a name, date, or circumstance to accommodate narrative flow. I tried to capture the essence of truth, if not always the precision of fact, and trust that the liberties I have taken will be forgiven.
I hope Cane River touches readers as a universal story of resilience and strength. I am especially pleased with the cover of the book. The woman standing beside the oak tree staring out to the future is my great grandmother Emily. I think she, and the others who came before her, would be honored to have you hear her story.
Cane River begins with Elisabeth — Tademy's great-great-great-great-grandmother — and focuses on three women marked by her strength, her pride, and her instinct for survival.
Elisabeth's youngest daughter, and the first to discover the promise — and heartbreak — of freedom. Determined to speak cultured French and receive Holy Communion in a church, Suzette dreams of marrying a boy from the gens de couleur libre — the free people of color. At the age of fourteen, she wakes up to the nightmare of bearing the child of the French man who forced himself upon her. She vows to give her daughter the life and the love she could only imagine.
Suzette's alluring, strong-willed, and resourceful daughter. Against her mother's wishes, Philomene loses her heart and virginity to a handsome, dark-skinned slave — before her fifteenth birthday. After suffering a series of crushing blows and unspeakable losses, she sets her mind on ensuring her family's protection. Leveraging her gift for "glimpsing" into the future and the lust of a prominent, long married, and childless French land owner, Philomene finds a way to gain unheard of economic independence and give her precious daughter the promise of a better life.
Philomene's beautiful and cherished daughter — and the first of her family to be born a free woman. Protected by her mother and adored by her white father, Emily grows up full of laughter and confidence. Sent to school in New Orleans, she learns to read — and wins the heart of her father's young friend, an up-and-coming French businessman. Defying society, Emily and her young man, Joseph, live together as husband and wife — even if the law forbids their marriage. The decision has tragic consequences. Emily faces the harsh reality — and danger —of racism. With the help of her family, she fights to secure her children's just due and preserve their future. Bringing to life a slice of American history at once devastating and uplitfing, Cane River is a completely absorbing and deeply affecting work. The women who changed the life of Lalita Tademy will touch the hearts of readers, and continue to inspire great admiration and thoughtful reflection long after the final page.
"Elisabeth, " Madame said, crinkling her nose as if she had caught wind of something slightly foul, "I've just talked to Oreline, and I want today's supper to be special. I have promised her a birthday treat of her favorites. There will be ten of us in all."
"Yes'm, Madame Francoise," said Elisabeth, eyes still on her worktable, hands never stopping their rhythm.
"We will have chicken and tasso jambalaya, sweet-potato pone, green beans, cala with the gooseberry preserves we put up last year, and peach cobbler, " Francoise instructed.
"I've give you my permission to go to the smokehouse after breakfast and get the ham and one jar of preserves," Madame said with a slight not of her head.
Madame Francoise walked a few steps toward the doorway and then turned back. Her tone and a scolding edge.
"You used far too much sugar in your last peach cobbler, Elisabeth, and Monsieur Derbanne got an upset stomach. Use less sugar this time."
The last time Suzette had served her mother's peach cobbler, she had spent half of that night cleaning up after Louis Derbanne. Elisabeth herself had told Suzette that Monsieur was ill because he had drunk too much bourbon. Her mother had done nothing wrong.
"Madame, it was the bourbon that made him sick, not the sugar."
Suzette's words hung there. Francoise Derbanne turned, took three quick steps toward Suzette, and slapped her hard.
She squinted at Elisabeth. "I won't be contradicted," she said, her voice wavering slightly. You need to teach the girl her place." She wheeled around and walked deliberately out of the cookhouse.
Francoise Derbanne had never slapped Elisabeth before, and it took a moment for her to start to cry. After the first startled tears, she looked toward her mother, who continued working the ball of dough.
"I didn't mean to be bad, Mere."
"Your little-girl days are done Suzette."
A single plump tear stood perched on the high ridge of Suzette's cheek, refusing to drop to the red outline below where Madame had slapped her. Elisabeth reached over and with her broad thumb pushed the wetness away, leaving a thin trace of white flour in its place.
Suzette felt the stinging on her face, the heat of the fires, the stickiness of her shift against her skin. She stared at the old burn spot shaped like a quarter moon on the inside of her mother's exposed arm, fascinated by how perfectly the tips curved in toward each other. She was tempted to reach out and touch it.
"There's lot worse things than slapping," Elisabeth said.
"It wasn't fair," Suzette said.
"There is no fair. Just work, Suzette."
More about Cane River
View printable version
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.
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?
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?
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?
The free people of color considered themselves neither black nor white. Can you think of any parallels in today's society?
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.
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?
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?
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?
Suzette changed her last name three times. Why was this so significant to her?
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?
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?
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?
Elisabeth says that everyone along Cane River was 'waiting for the spider to come home." What did she mean?
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?
We want to know what you think of this book! Read the suggestions for writing a review below, then post your review on the Oprah's Book Club message board. Bookmark this page and check back here often to see if your review has been featured!
1. How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?
2. Describe the character development in Cane River. How does Lalita Tademy use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?
3. In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.
4. What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?
5. In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with Cane River. What grade would you give this novel?
6. If you enjoyed this book, what other books would you recommend to fellow readers?
Above all else, have a good time putting your thoughts and opinions down in print! The best reviews are those that you would like to listen to or would give a friend.