I have a fixation with the south, particularly Louisiana—it’s a borderline obsession. My father is from a small Alabama town on the Gulf of Mexico, two hours outside of New Orleans, which I deem close enough for me to claim some sort of Louisiana roots. In fact, Mobile was once the capital of Louisiana during the French colonial period. There is a rich and unique history that lies in that gulf state. From the music, to the food, to the eclectic cultures and hues of people, it’s hard not to fall in love and, in my case, romanticize Louisiana. So, imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Cane River. Ok, more like scoured the internet for novels that took place in Louisiana, but, nevertheless, I became acquainted with this gem of a tale.
Cane River is the story of four generations of women in Lalita Tademy’s family spawning from Slavery, the Civil War, and the Depression era all along Louisiana’s Cane River in Natchitoches Parish. Before going any further, I have to applaud Tademy for her copious amount of research and dedication—she quit her job in Silicon Valley—to telling the incredible story of her family. From word-of-mouth to factual records Tademy wove in elements of fact and fiction to bring us the story of four women who used their ingenuity, coupled with their limited access, in order to survive and keep their family together. The tale begins with Emily, the fierce matriarch of her family–composed and resilient. Despite the tragedies she has faced, she is never deterred from her goal of keeping her family together. From Emily, Suzette is begotten. A once idealistic and romantic girl, Suzette is accosted with the harsh reality of her circumstances and though she must bury those old dreams, she grows stronger and more determined for her family and her children to see the light of freedom. Philomene is the even fiercer re-incarnation of her grandmother with dreams bigger than the two women before her. She is a fighter, despite the repeated blows of reality, she maintains her tenacious will to secure financial independence and reunite her family. The tale concludes with Emily, the realization of all the dreams and sacrifices of the women before her. She operates a new and confusing space of freedom and economic affluence, but she too is unable to escape the affliction of the her reality’s harsh times. But, just like the strong women who came before her, she squares her shoulders and stands up to the challenges of her society, unwilling to let them break or demean her. I was impressed by Tademy’s humanistic approach to each character in her novel. She shed the 21st centuries’ convictions on America’s most heinous crime against humanity and allowed us a deep psychoanalytic glimpse into the world of slavery and the complex factors that held up its institution. The characters lift right off the page and you become so immersed in their story that you feel as if you’re right there beside them. I finished the book in less than three days and was so engrossed that I couldn’t bother to pause and mark up the text for fear that I would miss something. Tademy’s beautiful prose is filled with poetic figurative and metaphoric ethos as it opens the window of the souls and minds of these women. She is able to spare us from too graphic details while still providing us the weight of sacrifice and the complexity of rationale. You’ll find yourself not in criticism of these women and their choices, but understanding their position respective to the confines of their reality. Tademy provides no good characters and no bad characters; she creates humans. Cane River is a story that goes beyond our notions of morality and ethics and centers on survival and the power of family.