May 2001

A woman’s-eye view of the peculiar institution

By Lalita Tademy
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Like any other institution devised by human beings, slavery had its inconsistencies. Lalita Tademy's saga, Cane River, highlights the peculiar way this peculiar institution was practiced in the Louisiana of her ancestors. One hesitates to say that slavery was more benevolent in this part of the Deep South, but the Catholic slaveholders of Louisiana did believe their slaves had souls that should, at least minimally, be tended to. Thus, Tademy's ancestress Suzette is given First Communion, and later her daughter Philomene is allowed to be married (to the extent that a slave could be married) by a priest. These episodes, among many, give Cane River a thrilling sense of newness for the reader that is missing from many grim slavery and post-slavery narratives, such as Toni Morrison's Beloved, that take place in other areas of the South.

Cane River is a novelization of stories Tademy gleaned from years of research about the generations of strong, dedicated, passionate and sometimes wrong-headed women who labored, in all senses of the word, through slavery and beyond. The book begins with Elisabeth, who was sold from Virginia to Louisiana, and one of Tademy's many brilliant touches is her description of the matriarch's difficulties with the Creole French spoken by the slaves and their masters. Tademy proceeds to recount Elisabeth's female descendants' difficulties with the men who owned them or thought they did. As if a metaphor for society itself, the relationships between Suzette and Philomene and Emily and the white fathers of their children evolve from flat-out rape, to distrustful financial arrangements cemented by childbearing, to real, if forbidden and dangerous, love.

Tademy's writing is gripping, whether she's describing the drudgery of day-to-day slave life, the dread felt by slaves about to be sold away from their loved ones, or the joy of an ex-slave finally getting her own house and gathering in the sundered parts of her family.

Tademy doesn't stint on the long-term damage slavery inflicts; the women, identifying with those who aggressed against them, value long straight hair and fair skin above all in their children. But most of the women emerge with their sanity and human dignity intact, and this, along with the fact that Tademy, a former Silicon Valley exec, is here to tell the tale, is the miracle of Cane River.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.


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Cane River

Cane River

By Lalita Tademy
ISBN 9780446527323

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