Cane River: A Novel

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Mingling historical fact with fiction, Lalita Tademy's epic novel is based on the lives of four generations of African American women and is the result of years of exhaustive research and an obsessive odyssey to uncover her family's past.
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Overview

Mingling historical fact with fiction, Lalita Tademy's epic novel is based on the lives of four generations of African American women and is the result of years of exhaustive research and an obsessive odyssey to uncover her family's past.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When the urge hit her, Lalita Tademy was Corporate Vice President of Sun Microsystems: "I had the feeling there was something else I was supposed to do." While she was deciding what that something else was, Tadent spent two years researching "the slave branch" of her family, "my mother's side." Returning to her ancestors' Cane River roots, she scouted old sharecroppers' farms; ransacked old courthouse archives; plotted a paper trail from grueling bondage to better days. Then, discovering what "I was supposed to do," she sat down to write this novel about the lives of slaves who were never allowed to write it themselves. Genealogy with wings.
Billie Letts
A compelling story! A powerful book!
Edward Ball
I admire what Lalita Tademy has done, writing fiction from fact to rbing to life what would otherwise be lost...
San Francisco Chronicle
...a long-overdue response to Alex Haley's "Roots..."it is about the way the past haunts the emotions and politics of the everyday and about the quiet unmapped stories that make up history...
San Jose Mercury News
...will haunt you long after you've shared their stories if suffering, abuse, joy...rich with fascinating detail...powerful in its story-telling...a journey well worth taking...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Five generations and a hundred years in the life of a matriarchal black Louisiana family are encapsulated in this ambitious debut novel that is based in part upon the lives, as preserved in both historical record and oral tradition, of the author's ancestors. In 1834, nine-year-old Suzette, the "cocoa-colored" house servant of a Creole planter family, has aspirations to read, to live always in a "big house" and maybe even to marry into the relatively privileged world of the gens de couleur libre. Her plans are dashed, however, when at age 13 a French migr takes her as his mistress. Her "high yellow" daughter Philomene, in turn, is maneuvered into becoming the mother of Creole planter Narcisse Fredieu's "side family." After the Civil War, Philomene pins her hopes for a better future on her light-skinned daughter, Emily Fredieu, who is given a year of convent schooling in New Orleans. But Emily must struggle constantly to protect her children by her father's French cousin from terrorist "Night Riders" and racist laws. Tademy is candid about her ancestors' temptations to "pass," as their complexions lighten from the color of "coffee, to cocoa, to cream to milk, to lily." While she fully imagines their lives, she doesn't pander to the reader by introducing melodrama or sex. Her frank observations about black racism add depth to the tale, and she demonstrates that although the practice of slavery fell most harshly upon blacks, and especially women, it also constricted the lives and choices of white men. Photos of and documents relating to Tademy's ancestors add authenticity to a fascinating story. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
First novelist Tademy turns fact (the story of her antebellum Southern family) into fiction. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788788499
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 2/12/2002
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 10 cassettes, 870 minutes

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

CANE RIVER, LOUISIANA—1834


On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Françoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes. Before the plantation bell sounded she had startled awake, tuned her ears to the careless breathing of Mam'zelle above her in the four-poster bed, listened for movement from the rest of the sleeping household, and quietly pushed herself up from her straw pallet on the floor.

Suzette made her way quickly down the narrow hall, beyond the wall altar, and past the polished mahogany grandfather clock in the front room, careful to sidestep the squeaky board by the front door. Outside on the gallery, her heart thudded so wildly that the curiosity of the sound helped soften the fear. Her breath felt too big for her chest as she inched past the separate entrance to the stranger's room and around to the side of the big house where the prized bushes waited.

Barefoot into the darkness, aided only by the slightest remnant of the Louisiana summer moon, she chose Madame's favorite, a sprawling rosebush with delicate pale yellow flowers and visible roots as long as her father's fiddling bow.

The task didn't take long, going and coming back, and Oreline's breathing was still soft and regular when Suzette slipped back onto her makeshift mattress at the foot of the bed. The only evidence that Suzette had been gone at all was a thin, jagged scratch on her bare arm from a thorn she hadn't seen in the darkness.


The day before had started with midsummer Louisiana predictability, so smotheringly hot that the spongy air seemed topush down on Suzette as she hurried to the cookhouse after church. Once there, she slipped a clean apron over her good dress, a loose-fitting dark calico with a yoke neck, one of Oreline's last-season castoffs her mother had altered to fit the girl's small body. Her mother had left room in the dress for a growth spurt. Every last item of Suzette's clothing from undershift to leggings and shoes had first belonged to her mam'zelle. Although the girls were the same age, Oreline was taller than Suzette by half a head. They made an odd pair, the pale white girl, long legged and gangly as a young colt, and her tiny cocoa-colored nurse, Suzette, with skin like strong coffee after the splash of cream. Suzette's eager smile showed off a gap between her two front teeth. The space was almost the width of a full kernel of corn, and Suzette used it to give more force to her whistle. It came in handy for calling chickens or pigs or for impressing Oreline and Narcisse when they ran the woods together in play.

The added heat from the blazing cookhouse fires made Suzette's dress stick to her as she worked the paddle of the butter churn. Built at a distance from the main house because of the risk of fire, the cookhouse belonged to the Derbannes, along with the cotton and cornfields, the swamplands, the facing rows of eight slave cabins in the quarter, four on each side, and every other living thing on Rosedew, their plantation along Bayou Derbanne.

Suzette looked over to her mother Elisabeth's strong, quick hands as she pulled a gray white dough ball toward her, kneading air into biscuits for the master's breakfast table. When her mother finished the cooking, it was Suzette's job to run the food to the big house while it was still hot and to serve the table.

Der-banne. Fre-dieu. She silently practiced her speaking voice in time to the paddle, hoping her mother would make conversation.

Elisabeth hummed as she worked, her tune deep, slow, and plaintive. Suzette wasn't sure of her mood. Her mother had never taken to Creole French, even the rough version they spoke in the quarter. Elisabeth never achieved the same slurry rhythm that everyone else from the house used.

"How was church?" Elisabeth finally asked.

"St. Augustine was beautiful." Belle, Suzette pronounced carefully, wrapping her lips around the word, hoping her French sounded as refined as Oreline's, imagining her words flowing as smoothly as those she had heard this morning at the church. "Old Bertram and I stood outside, but he found us a place where we could see into the sanctuary." Sanctuaire. "M'sieu, Madame, and Mam'zelle sat behind a row of gens de couleur libre."

Suzette could still feel the wonder of the morning, the long ride in the wagon pressed between Oreline and Narcisse Fredieu, seeing for the first time the broad bell of St. Augustine above the vestibule, the shimmery waves rising off the sun-baked tiles on the gabled roof, the brightly colored glass. But mostly the clusters of people. White, colored, Negro, free, and slave, all dressed fine, all in one place.

Elisabeth grunted. "The free people of color who built that church own more slaves than the Derbannes. They go by their own rules," she said.

"I saw him, Mère. When he came outside, I saw Augustine Metoyer himself. I was as close to him as I stand to you now. You should hear him talk. More proper than M'sieu Louis. And his top hat was silk."

Suzette closed her eyes to bring back the images of the morning. Augustine Metoyer was the most famous of all the gens de couleur libre. The closest she had ever been to Cane River royalty before was her godmother, a free woman who had married into that famous family.</P>

"I wanted to go inside. Old Bertram went in for a few minutes and took communion while I waited." Suzette was sorry her mother had never seen St. Augustine, that she and Old Bertram were the only slaves who had been allowed off the plantation.

"Just do your work, Suzette," Elisabeth said. "We have ten to feed this morning, and I still have Mam'zelle Oreline's birthday supper to make."

"Mam'zelle promised to leave some of everything on her plate for me tonight since it is almost my birthday, too."

Elisabeth said nothing, began to hum again.

Suzette wished her mother would send her on an errand, away for a time from all of the eyes that sought her out night and day. She would slip off her shoes and walk, with the rich Louisiana soil under her feet and between her toes, and carry back a pail of fresh cow's milk without spilling any, or bring in more wood for the fire, or gather green beans from the big garden to string and snap later. She was eight years old today, would be nine tomorrow, and she was meant for the house, not the field. Everyone, white, colored, and Negro, told her how much pride there was in that.

On good days Elisabeth would tell Suzette interesting things, mostly about cooking or preserving or flavoring, and sometimes she would compare Rosedew with the plantation she had come from in Virginia.

"This big house is puny next to some," Elisabeth would declare. In Virginia, her mother said, the big house had an upstairs, a downstairs, and thick white columns in the front. There were separate servants for every task, and each one of them had assistants. The big house on Rosedew was slung low, a one-story house of wood and brick frame, stuccoed in white, and topped with a long, sloping roof. There were six rooms that Suzette helped clean and a special bedroom for visitors, the stranger's room, with its own separate entrance from the outside for passersby on the river who might need a place to stay overnight. More often, as when the entire Fredieu family stayed over, it was used for the Derbannes' relatives who came calling by the day or week or month.

Beneath her madras tignon, Elisabeth's broad, dark face was streaked with a mixture of sweat from the heat of the cookhouse fires and a film of fine white flour from her morning baking. The sleeves on her long calico summer dress were pushed up above her elbows, and Suzette could see the old leathery burn marks on the brown skin of her mother's arms from her many years as cook, from boiling kettles and the big smoky fireplace and sizzling skillets. Suzette looked down at her own skinny arms, wishing they were pale and white like Oreline's instead of the color of cocoa.

"Mam'zelle and I went down to the quarter yesterday."

For Suzette there were real smells in the quarter no one tried to mask, loud sounds no one tried to quiet, and large motions no one tried to subdue. Weekdays only the smallest children were there, along with those too old for the field, the sick, new mothers, and the old woman who took care of all the little ones. Everyone else was gone, working sunup to sundown. After dark everyone was usually too tired from the day in the field to do much more than prepare their evening meal of ground cornmeal and their ration of bacon. A handful of meal, a little water, a pinch of lard, into the ashes to cook, and fall into bed exhausted after eating. But Saturday, after half-day labor, the quarter came alive with each household working their own patch garden, washing clothes, trading gossip, and bringing back fish or game along with stories of how they had caught it. Children mixed at will, white and black, broadcloth and homespun, nearly masters and nearly slaves not yet fully grown into their roles. Suzette's family lived in the quarter, including two sisters and a younger brother. There were moments when she wondered what it would have been like to live there instead of the big house.

"Papa made up two songs. One for Mam'zelle's birthday and a different one for mine."

Her father, Gerasíme, never gave Suzette hard looks when she used her house voice, unlike some others in the quarter. He was coppery brown, small framed, and always glad to see her, no matter how tired he might be. With his booming laugh, he called her his "big-eyed gal." Geras?me's wild mane of springy black hair couldn't decide whether to stay down or curl up, so it did both, and his face was so smooth that he didn't have to shave like the other men. When Suzette had asked him about it, he'd said it was because he was half Indian. Her father was a favorite in both the quarter and the big house because he played the fiddle, and Louis Derbanne often got requests to rent him out for the frequent parties held up and down Cane River.

Suzette grew quiet when Madame Françoise Derbanne swept into the cookhouse, the silk of her pale green visiting dress rustling. Françoise's heavily corseted build was typical of well-fed Creole ladies, and her fading brown hair had been darkened with coffee-grounds water and upswept in calculated curls. Both her pointed nose and chin were inclined slightly, and her feet were nestled in black hightop shoes with leather-covered buttons. Usually she had Elisabeth come to her in the dark back room of the big house to decide on the menus for the week. But from time to time she appeared in the cookhouse unannounced, being careful not to let anything touch her or her fine clothes. It was an old ceremony between the mistress and her cook, and they had been acting it out since Elisabeth had come to the plantation fifteen years before.

"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 Françoise," said Elisabeth, eyes still on her worktable, hands never stopping their rhythm.

Suzette tried not to smile as she watched the two women, one tall, with skin the color of day-old grits, the other short and dark. She had already told her mother each of the choices she and Oreline had decided upon.

"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," Françoise instructed.

"Yes'm."

Suzette was surprised Madame could not smell the peaches hidden in the pantry. Their aroma still lingered in the air of the cookhouse, competing with the sharp yeast smell of the starter sponge for cala they had concocted the night before, holding the promise of the rice fritters to come. She had peeled the potatoes for her mother and had been careful to watch how Elisabeth combined the boiled potatoes, cornmeal, flour, and cooking soda and left it in the night air to ferment before mixing in the boiled rice to make the sponge. Just before mealtime would come the flour, eggs, butter, and milk, the stiff batter to beat, the dropping of the calas by the spoonful onto the blistering skillet.

"I 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 nod of her head.

"Yes'm."

Madame Françoise walked a few steps toward the doorway and then turned back. Her tone had 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."

"Yes'm."

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 M'sieu was ill because he had drunk too much bourbon. Her mother had done nothing wrong.

Suzette stood to her full height, the butter paddle still in her hands.

"Madame," she said eagerly to Françoise Derbanne, "it was the bourbon that made him sick, not the sugar."

Suzette's words fell into the damp, dead air and hung there. Each of the three stood rooted in the cookhouse, the white woman's lips reducing to an astonished slim line, the black woman's face turning in on itself, her eyes closing briefly, and the suddenly uncertain little cocoa-colored girl letting her arms fall limply to her side. A fly buzzed sluggishly toward the open doorway.

Françoise Derbanne's eyes flickered hot. She turned, took three quick steps toward Suzette, and slapped her hard with her green-gloved hand across the right side of her face, fingers spread wide.

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.

Françoise Derbanne had never slapped Suzette in the face 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, Mère."

Elisabeth sprinkled more flour on the worktable and roughly pulled down the rolling pin. "Your little-girl days are done." At first her tone provided no opening, but then it softened. "Come over here, Suzette." Suzette obeyed slowly, sniffling.

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.

"Mère?"

Elisabeth had returned to her dough, humming.

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.

"How many times have I told you to keep that mouth from running?" Elisabeth said. "There's lots worse than slapping." She didn't often look angry, but now she pounded at the dough as if she were scrubbing clothes on the washboard.

"It wasn't fair," Suzette said stubbornly.

"There is no fair. Just do your work, Suzette."

Suzette went back to the churn. Der-banne. Der-banne. The paddle resisted more with each movement until she had butter. She spooned it out, rocking herself in place where she stood, her face settling into a dull ache, while Elisabeth's big wooden rolling pin gave out stubborn squeaks with each pass over the dough.

"Mère, I finished the butter."

"Is the table set?"

"Oui."

"Then come watch," Elisabeth said. "Your time's coming soon enough to make the biscuits."

This seemed like safer ground to Suzette, and she held on to it. "Can I help you today if Mam'zelle Oreline doesn't need me?"

Elizabeth showed the beginnings of a rare smile, partially exposing the gap between her two front teeth, a gap that matched Suzette's own.

"I'm going to make you a little secret peach cobbler for your birthday tomorrow. No telling anybody else, even Mam'zelle." Elisabeth reached out and touched Suzette's arm, insistent, the almost smile fading. "Understand?" she said. "Not even Mam'zelle."

Suzette nodded. "Should I run and get more peaches?" she asked.

"First use those young legs to go get me some more sugar. One extra cup and we'll make sure this peach cobbler bubbles up nice and sweet for Mam'zelle Oreline."

The ache had faded from her cheek by the time Suzette served the breakfast of tamales, tortillas, sausages, blood pudding, and biscuits to the Derbannes and their visiting houseguests. They were ten around the long dining room table, and the adults seemed in high spirits. She dished the sausages out of the platter for everyone around the table, coming last to Oreline's cousin Narcisse Fredieu, a pudgy boy with light brown hair thick clumped in waves hugging his head.

Suzette stayed close to the table, hoping to hear the Derbannes and the Fredieus talk about St. Augustine. For a long while the breakfast conversation meandered lazily from the price of cotton and old people's ailments to the poison grass creeping up from the marsh, what the weather was likely to be, and the heavy responsibilities of the planter class. She'd heard all of that before.

"I tell you, brother, the seating arrangement is improper at St. Augustine. White sitting behind colored," Narcisse's mother complained. "We were meant for better."

Suzette waited to see what would happen next. Oreline had told her that the Fredieus were not exactly de la fine fleur des pois, not the most select blooms of the sweet-pea blossom, and the marriage of Narcisse's mother to a Fredieu had been below her place. On many of their visits Suzette had overheard Narcisse's mother, a Derbanne, talk about her family's quality, with history and distinction in the bloodline. She passed on her family stories, bold and proud tales of the original French settlers in Louisiana. She was silent on the subject of the Fredieus' background.

"They reserve the eight rows for their betters, sister," Louis responded. "Only Augustine's family is in front. He did pay for the church, after all."

Françoise cleared her throat to speak. "We should go to the Natchitoches church," she said, and her voice rose slightly. "It dismays me to have to consort so closely with the gens de couleur libre."

Suzette knew she really meant her godmother, Doralise. Even the mention of Doralise Derbanne could trigger an ugly mood in Françoise. Louis Derbanne had freed Doralise when she was still a nursing baby, acknowledging her so openly as his daughter that she had taken his last name as her own, even in public, making it impossible for Françoise Derbanne to deny the obvious, as she had done with the others. Suzette's godmother, her marraine, occupied a middle place, not as high as the white Derbannes or the Fredieus and not as low as any of those she sponsored as godmother from the house or the quarter. She was a woman of color, and free.

All eyes at the table shifted from Françoise to Louis Derbanne. He looked the part of the older-generation Creole French planter, from his pomaded thinning gray hair to his black suit and riding boots. The role had been handed to him whole on the day he was born. "We have had this conversation before," he said. "I will not drive all the way to Natchitoches when there is a perfectly acceptable chapel on the river."

Françoise gave ground in the face of opposition from her husband. "With the infidel Creoles around Cane River, we were lucky our eight rows were half-full."

"I understand your discomfort, my dear, but the best church is a church nearby." Louis waved Suzette over for more blood pudding, and she hurried to his place at the head of the table.

"At least St. Augustine draws the best of the gens de couleur libre," Françoise conceded. "They do have the proper respect for whites so crucial for the smooth running of a community. Thank goodness they don't consider themselves white, but they certainly don't consider themselves Negro, either."

The children at the table, including Oreline and Narcisse, sat quiet, as demanded, listening to the adults talk, joining in only for the singing after the meal.

Midday the Fredieus left Rosedew to return to their own plantation.

Later that evening Suzette helped Oreline undress for bed.

"Mam'zelle Oreline, would you teach me reading?"

"I cannot, Suzette. You must stop asking. You know as well as I do that you are not allowed. Besides, it is no good for you to try to learn something so hard. Your ideas are wicked."

"Just a few words? My name?"

"I will not," Oreline insisted.

"What if we don't tell?"

"No. Aunt Françoise would be very angry if she found out. Why would you want to read, anyway? Even Aunt Françoise doesn't know how."

Suzette stopped to consider. The Derbannes had taken Oreline in when her parents died, and Oreline would never disobey either Françoise or Louis. Still, she persisted. "In church today, I could not follow what the priest said."

"He talks most of the time in Latin," Oreline said. "Nobody understands."

"But I want to take communion. Old Bertram went inside the church today, like everyone else."

"You do not have to know how to read to take communion. I can ask Aunt Françoise to give her permission for you to take classes when I do. Besides, I will always be around if there is something to be read."

Oreline gave Suzette a secret, reassuring side glance when Françoise came in to lead the two girls in bedtime prayers. "Aunt Françoise, can Suzette take communion with me?"

Françoise looked from one girl to the other. "First communion is not until you are twelve, and requires serious study to get ready."

"I would help her," said Oreline.

"Your behavior today did not show you as a very good follower of Christ, Suzette," Françoise said. "You have failed to be properly obedient."

"I can be good, Madame Françoise. I do want to take communion, like Mam'zelle Oreline. Old Bertram told me he was confirmed when he was a boy."

"We will see how you conduct yourself." Françoise sat in the cane-bottom chair beside the four-poster bed, perched tentatively, as if prepared for any turn of events. "Oreline, tonight you will start to learn the Lord's Prayer."

Oreline repeated each passage after her aunt, and then Françoise kissed her niece lightly on the forehead. "When you are ready to be confirmed, you will wear a beautiful white dress and a veil, and I will get you your own rosary beads." Françoise looked to Suzette, standing near the foot of the bed. "And you, Suzette. If you apply yourself, you can rise above your mother and the others in the quarter." She straightened her skirts and prepared to retire to her own room. "Time for bed. Good night."

Suzette made her rounds of the big house, pulling the drapes, emptying the spittoons, and gathering everyone's dirty laundry. She checked on each member of the household to see if they needed her for anything before she returned to Oreline's room, where she blew out the candles and pulled out her pallet from under the bed.

Early the next morning, on her ninth birthday, before the household stirred, she made her way to Françoise Derbanne's favorite rosebush.

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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Writing fiction is a deeply personal undertaking -- creating complex characters, getting them in and out of fixes, spinning tales inevitably based on one's own interpretations of life. In order to create a compelling story the writer must transport him- or herself into the work. But writing about family members, even when most of them have been dead and buried for nearly a century, as I did in my first novel, Cane River, a fictionalized saga about four generations of colored Creole slave women, carried additional challenges. All writers face the risk of revealing more about themselves and their worldviews than they might intend. In cases like my own they must also worry about disclosing more than their family might be comfortable with and interpreting this personal history differently from other relatives. The writer might be accused of employing a thinly disguised description of one or all family members, and they may not be happy about it. It makes for interesting family gatherings.

I came to fiction writing late, after a long corporate management career. Cane River was the first word-related project I had undertaken in years that didn't have a business plan attached. (To be fair, in retrospect, some of those business plans did have fictional elements associated with them.) I had to adjust quickly to the harsh reality that if a writer doesn't do it (whatever it is), it doesn't get done. There are no backup teams ready in the wings, no motivational speeches to deliver, no need for "all-hands" meetings where you gather everyone who works for you to outline expectations. All I really needed was a spiral notebook (narrow ruled), a plentiful supply of pens (Uniball blue ink, Sanford fine point), and a minimum of three dedicated hours a day. Every day.

On the one hand, as a first-time novelist it was helpful to tell a story shaped by real places, real people, and real events. On the other, trying to recount the circumstances surrounding a fiery 1907 newspaper editorial about my ancestors, entitled "The Sin of Miscegenation," left me so emotionally spent that for weeks I was afraid I wouldn't be able to communicate anything at all.

I wrote the entire manuscript for Cane River in longhand first. I found it impossible to tackle the virgin page on a computer, as if my brain couldn't override the numbing power of that blinking cursor without handwritten crib notes. I had to spend extra hours in the afternoon or evening after the day's creative purge typing work into the desktop for subsequent editing. The old, efficient me (corporate) was appalled by the wasted time and effort, but the newly emerging right-brained me (writer) reluctantly accepted the limitations and went with the flow.

I will admit to having been surprised by the things that I found the craft of writing was not. It wasn't channeling, divine inspiration, predictable, or fun. It was wonderfully exciting when a character took the narrative in directions I hadn't anticipated, but that character always refused to hand me the descriptive words I secretly hoped for.

When I finished writing Cane River, I was enormously satisfied that it captured the story of four such remarkable women from my past. Writing is personal, sometimes wrenching, often drudgery, but I have to admit, when I held the first finished copy of the book in my hand, the agony vanished, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. (Lalita Tademy)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 225 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 225 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2001

    The Not-to-be-Missed Novel of the Year!

    We know all the stories-how white men forced themselves on their black female slaves; the octoroon and mulatto children who resulted from those unions; the hope of freedom; the field work; the housework; the cruel overseers. There's nothing new in that arena in Lalita Tademy's debut novel, Cane River. But what makes this work stand out from any of the others in this historical area, which takes place along the Cane River in Louisiana, is the women who pepper this compelling family saga. First we meet Elizabeth and her daughter, Suzette. In her late thirties, Elizabeth seems much, much older, worn down by the burden of being a slave and her position as cook. Her motto is 'We do what we have to to survive.' Suzette is a high-spirited girl who has enjoyed being the shadow of her owner's daughter, Oreline Derbanne. Suzette cannot understand why she and her family are slaves, when there are free colored people living nearby. An white French immigrant and neighbor, Eugene Daurat, rapes Suzette and begins an affair with her that is rather odd, but intriguing. Suzette bears him two children. As time goes by, the plantation, Rosedew, the master, Louis Derbanne, dies. Suzette and her daughter, her mother, and her deaf-mite sister go in one direction; her son in another. Suzette's daughter, Philomene, grows up with a gift---the ability to see into the future----'glimpsings.' Philomene is about to marry Clement, the love of her life, but she is forced into intimacy with a white man, Narcisse Fredieu. Before Clement is sold away, she bears him twin daughters, but bears Fredieu eight. Philomene makes sure that Fredieu cares for his children by making certain the property on which he built them a home is in her name---security she calls it. The white stain Daurat started with Suzette is becoming more and more evident in each child that appears. By the time we reach Emily's (Philomene's daughter) stage of life, there are four generations of colored women living under the same roof. The children come from all over the Cane River area to have the dinner with Elizabeth and any other family member who can make it. Emily's tale goes up to her death in 1936 and is the frame of the novel. Tademy, who quit her vice-presidency position at a Fortune 500 company to research her family roots, has done an excellent job in portraying each individual woman. The names of the men, because they are French and resemble each other, are confusing and difficult to keep distinguished. However, Cane River is a wonderfully-written novel that moves at a dramatic pace and digs deeper into the soul's of these women and their era with remarkable richness and complexity.

    15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2001

    A great and timely story. I couldn't put this book down

    It's important to know where you come from so your know where you are going. Ms. Tademy knew where to go to write this great book. It will go on my bookshelf next to 'Root' and the rest of my family's history books and albums. Sometimes we wonder why 'certain' things keep happening in the same family generation after generation after generation. After reading Cane River you will have the answer. This is a book that should be handed down from mother to daughter to grand-daughter to great-grand-daughter etc. to read and get an understanding of our responsibility as mothers. Cane River's story didn't just happen in Louisanna or to Black/Colored Creoles it happens through out the United States to many African American families today.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 29, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Meaningful read! Enjoyed!

    Three African-American women, Suzette, Philomene, and Emily, who put family first and did what they had to do, given their circumstances, to survive and also succeed. Meaningful read!

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    Fabulous

    This book is one you will want to keep in your library, and pass down. A true story about Cajun, Negroe, and white families and slaves living together in the lower delta along the Cane river beginning in the mid 1800's, through the 1930's. It brought to me a life and time,& sacrifices made by the women who are ancestors of the author, that just tore at my heart. I could not put this book down, and am looking forward to the continuing story of "Red River". Highly recommend.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Best Book I read in 2009

    I loved every minute of reading this book. Lalita Tademy spent years researching her family history, and then used what she found to write a semi-fiction, semi-fact based novel about her female ancestors beginning in the 1800's while they were still living in slavery. This is one of those rare books that tells a complete story. Each of these amazing, strong women, drew me in to the novel giving an excellent portrait of what a woman's life in slavery would have been like as well as the Civil War, reconstruction, and the years of discrimination that followed. I was so sad to say goodbye to these characters at novel's end that I found myself re-reading large sections of the book, unready to move on. I would recommend this story to anyone who has an interest in historical fiction, slavery, and the lives of real women. This is going on my all time favorites list.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Love It!

    I read this book in less than 2 days. I couldn't put it down. Tademy tells a beautiful story of four generations of women and their battles with slavery, Jim Crow, love, and raising kids. It made me want to learn about my ancestors and their struggles and achievements. I felt like I was there, there was never a disconnect. Made more clear how things were back the and shows how many slaves fought, bled, and died for the next generation to have it even a little better.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2011

    Historical Learning and emotional experiences, all wrapped up in one book

    I had to put it down every so often.... some of the experiences were heartwrenching. To forget about all the abominations of slavery, the horrors... and this book actually plays it down quite a bit, since the appalling details are not necessary to the storyline(s). But still, I love the way she weaved in fiction with historical events and facts. I was captivated, and felt like the knew the characters personally. Check it out... you won't regret reading this one, especially if you liked The Help, Perfect Peace, and even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Compelling Read!

    This is an excellent read. The story is captivating and emotional. There are moments when you wanna cry. The women in this story are likable. You get a good glimpse into the various aspects of slavery and the role color impacted the system. The author did serious research and it is reflected in her writing. A must read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013

    Great Reading

    I have a hard time putting this book down. I am three quarters through and hate to know this book will come to an end.
    Reading this book makes you realize how very fortunate you are to live in the present era. Such hard times that people had in the 1700-1800s are hard to imagine. I chose this book for our Bookclub to read and we have not had a discussion yet. I am looking forward to our upcoming meeting. I would love to read more from this author

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2012

    Finally finished

    While it took me months to finish this book reading it in between others it was a great story.....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2012

    Educational

    I learned so much about Creoles and blacks that lived during the Civil War and pre-Civil War era in Louisiana. The story was a roller coaster of emotion. You're up, then flip the page and you're back down. The only thing that was difficult to follow were all of the names of everyone. I did a lot of flipping back and forth trying to remember who was who. Totally enjoyed this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2012

    The author developed a theory I had never thought about - Bleaching the line" ,twas great.

    I really enjoyed this book. I recommended iy to my Brdge Buddies. The story is set on " bleaching the line" a theory that is new to me. The characters seemed authentic and I would give the novel 4stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2012

    Amazing!

    This is one of the most engaging books I've every read! I could hardly put it down!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2012

    Kp-TX

    I absolutely enjoyed this book. Thanks to Ms. Tademe for sharing your family with us. This book is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2012

    Highly Recommend - 3 generations of strong women of slavery

    I am not one to read books that break my heart - especially if the book is similar to real history. However, this was my book club's choice and I am very happy I read Cane River. At first, it is difficult to remember all of the names. But, after a while, I got the hang of them ALL! The inner strength and intelligence the three generations of women had in the face of their adversities was impressive.

    My book club gave this book 4 out of 5 stars. The only reason for not having a full 5 stars was the same issue I had at the beginning of the book. We had a two hour discussion on the book which led into historical issues and current issues in the south. Amazing!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2012

    EXCELLENT

    I could not put this book down. What a beautiful story. I felt like I was living in this time period. I laughed and I cried. It stayed with me for a very long time, I highly recommended it to all who love to read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2011

    Great Book!!!!

    Just finished reading this book. It was painful, thought provoking, and exciting all at the same time. I stayed up late reading and tried to imagine how these strong women found the courage to go on after all they had to endure. This book opened my eyes to a lot of questions i had about Louisiana. I was facinated to learn that they all spoke French! This book was on my "to read" list for many years, and I'm so glad I finally got to enjoy it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 18, 2011

    A compelling read for fans of US historical fiction!

    I read this one immediately after a trip to New Orleans that included a visit to a Cajun plantation. What a great coincidence! This book, the fictionalized biographies of three generations of strong, biracial women, the author's ancestors, challenged my preconceived notions about the antebellum south, its social hierarchy, and indeed, the nature of both slavery and slave holders.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 25, 2011

    Great Book!

    I found it hard to put down as I was eager to follow through with each character until I reached the end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2011

    If you like the Help and Perfect Peace, you'll like this one, too!

    Very engaging, just enough fiction to keep it interesting and endearing to the characters; just enough facts to make it believeable!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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