Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cane River (thoughts)

I chose Cane River, by Lalita Tademy, as the first book for my Southern Reading Challenge. I wanted to start off with an exploration of slavery; when I was younger, I was rather enchanted with Gone With the Wind. Now, after four years at a very liberal college, I have a guilt complex about that (of course, not so strong that I've given up my huge poster and four-dvd special edition). So, I thought that by taking an unflinching look at slavery, and the prejudice in the South, it would help me remember not to romanticise the region.

As you may or may not know, Tademy was a business executive who quit her job in order to research her ancestors. It turns out she's descended from slaves who lived in the Creole region of Louisiana, around Cane River. The novel is based in historical fact, and follows the lives of three generations (although an older fourth is always present) of women: the youngest generation is Tademy's great-grandmother, Emily. The book is divided into three parts, and three points of view: Suzette, Philomene (her daughter), and Emily (her daughter). Tademy took everything she could find out about these women (as well as Suzette's mother Elisabeth) and then imagined the rest. At times, she almost flirts with magical realism: Philomene has visions that come to fruition. It does feel somewhat Latin American in its epic scope and focus on one family through the generation.

However, Tademy does not have the literary skill to pull off magical realism. In fact, her writing is quite straight-forward; even when she's describing the landscape, or weather, she never waxes lyrical. This was the disappointing aspect of the book: Tademy didn't create Cane River in my mind's eye. Part of the reason I chose this book was its setting: I've always been fascinated by Lousiana. I didn't really get the descriptions I expected.

Nevertheless, this was the biggest drawback in a very good book. My favourite part is how well Tademy incorporates the Creole culture into the book. She shows Suzette practicing her French and taking First Communion; in fact, at a party scene, some English-speaking guests are osctracised since no one else can talk with them. Before I read this book, I had never pictured slaves speaking French; it was quite a revelation.

The other part that opened up my eyes was how "white" these African American women were. Throughout the book, Tademy includes real pictures (which is a huge plus), and by Emily and her children, you would never think they were African American. This progressive belaching of the family line is actually a major aspect of the book; its usually accomplished with either out-right rape, or at least coercion on the part of the French white men. These were difficult passages to read, but they were presented quite straight forwardly.

In fact, I think Tademy's greatest strength lies in her ability to present the difficulty and oppression of being a slave, or recently-freed African American, without becoming political or reactionary. Her straight-forward writing style is a good thing for passages like this. And she can write: it's just that she can't write like Rushdie or Marquez. After all, who can?

I think anyone who enjoys family narratives, and who is interested the French Creole community, or African Americans would really enjoy this book. It shows enough research to be grounded, and Tademy's invented narrative rings true. A very good book, which was obviously written with a lot of love and respect.


Maggie said...

Oh, my! I had no idea you were participating. I'm so sorry! Did you leave a link on Mr. Linky? I bet you did and I just haven't kept up, so sorry.

Now that I have found you I look forward to your reads and getting to know you. I'll read your post tomorrow, since it's past 12am and I need ALL the beauty rest I can muster. L8r! :D

MyUtopia said...

I have Cain River on my list TBR

Gentle Reader said...

Thanks for the review. Sounds interesting--I would love to read about the Creole community!

Booklogged said...

Very nice review. I've seen this book, but it never called out to me, but your review did. Was this family African American or were they French Acadians?