Isle of Canes

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Shown Mills is a historical writer who has spent her life studying Southern culture and the relationships between people‹emotional as well as genetic. A popular lecturer, author of numerous works on generational history, and past president of the American Society of Genealogists, Elizabeth recently retired as editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly to devote her time to writing. Isle of Canes is her ...

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Shown Mills is a historical writer who has spent her life studying Southern culture and the relationships between people‹emotional as well as genetic. A popular lecturer, author of numerous works on generational history, and past president of the American Society of Genealogists, Elizabeth recently retired as editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly to devote her time to writing. Isle of Canes is her first novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Lalita Tademy
Mills is a master story teller, bringing to vivid life untold pieces of our country’s hsitory.
author of the New York Times bestseller Cane River
Historical Novels Review
A masterpiece. You may never look at American history the same way again.
City Social Magazine
In language that flows like poetry... issues of race and social standing are portrayed with an honesty that is rare in southern literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781593313067
  • Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 9/1/2006
  • Pages: 583
  • Sales rank: 489,323
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Mills is a historical writer who has spent her life studying Southern culture and the relationships between people

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Read an Excerpt

“Papa? More gruel? We must keep up your strength.”

François barely heard the words. His mouth moved mechanically as the warm mush was injected, but his mind struggled feverishly to find some meaning to his life.

Coincoin. His little goddess. His and Fanny’s gift to a world that had given them so little. Long ago, or was it yesterday? He had sat out on the edge of a broad hill and watched his little girl grow up. No, she didn’t grow up, either. She had always been grown. What was it he had thought that night? That Destiny surely had greater things in mind when she created this woman-child? Yes! Fanny’s destiny was not dead! She had bequeathed it to this daughter, and Coincoin would fulfill it! Only she didn’t know! Fanny had not told her!

A rash of words then spilled from his swollen lips as he gave his second-born daughter answers to all the questions he and Fanny had never let her ask; as he bared to her his soul, his sins, his failings, as though she were a priest administering to him the last holy rites; as he sang for her the praises of his princess that were not sung at her ignominious burial and then lay before Coincoin the key to her past and the door to her future.

As suddenly as it had come, the tempest from François’s soul subsided and he lay still. For hours, or minutes, it could have been either Coincoin sat in the shadows of the great four-poster that ruled over the little cabin they called home. Death this day had wrenched from her the only meaning her life had known, the very source from which she had sprung. Yet, for what it took, it gave a measure in return. Over and again her mind repeated a single line from the communion prayer that the reverend father chanted at each Sunday’s Mass: Dying, he gave new life. Dying, he gave new life. And in her grief, Coincoin felt no sense of sacrilege at this blurring of the image of her father and her Savior.

She rose, slowly, as tall and graceful as the goddess he thought she was. Bending across the big bed, she kissed her father good-bye. No fear of mortal plague could come between them at this last parting for she, too, shared her father’s knowledge that the hour of her destiny had not yet come. She still lived, because she was meant for something more in life than that which life had given them. The vague ache she had always known deep within her soul had a name now, and she knew its meaning and her mission.

“One day, Papa, Mama!” she cried, thrusting her face toward heaven as she pounded with both hands on the bed post where Fanny had fallen. “One day, Mama’s dream will happen! One day, we shall be free again! Free! And proud! And noble! And men will bow before us, and we will never have to say ‘Yes, Madame’ or ‘No, Madame’ to anyone unless we choose to. We will be free! This, I promise!”

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Table of Contents

The Families xi
Prologue: Circa 1900 The Memory-keeper 1
Part 1 1742-1758 The Promise 11
Part 2 1765-1781 The Price 89
Part 3 1788-1816 The Planting 207
Part 4 1816-1856 The Reaping 351
Part 5 1859-1876 The Reaving 471
Epilogue: Circa 1900 The Rekindling 567
Afterword 577
A Note about Sources 581
About the Author 587
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills about her new book Isle of Canes:


Q: What is this book about?


MILLS: Isle of Canes is a story of multiracial America and its historic struggle to make a place for itself in a world that has insisted one must be either black or white. It is a story of personal conflict between a slave’s hunger for freedom and the freedman’s struggle for survival in a slave regime. It’s a story of the cultural clash between the Latin and Anglo South over the issues of race and civil rights for those who were free but not white.  It’s a story of sexual and emotional dynamics that transcend race. Above all, it is the story of family, and how pride in one’s roots can sustain generations of people through all adversities.


Q: What role did genealogy play in the creation of this novel?


MILLS: Truly, it provided the bones, flesh, heart, mind, and soul for all the Islanders whose story it tells. Genealogy is history up close and personal. When we personalize history, we make it real. Studying the individual lives of people, as I’ve done with the Islanders for the past thirty-five years, gives us a much clearer window through which to see the world. It shows us, starkly, the human costs of decisions made by politicians and generals, and it leaves us with a much truer understanding of why our society is the way it is.


Q: What compelled you to write this book?


MILLS: Ah, what writer can resist when a story cries to be told! The life that existed for Louisiana’s Creoles of color is a chapter of America’s past that few people have seen or heard. In part, it has been simply neglected amid our country’s traditional emphasis on Anglo-Protestant roots. In part, it has been purposefully ignored because it raises issues we, as a nation, are uncomfortable with. On matters of slavery and race, we favor stereotypes—we grasp for black and white answers—because those are easier to deal with than shades of gray. But the life that once existed on Cane River’s Isle goes way beyond the gray-scale. The Islanders’ story paints the complexities of human life in glorious Technicolor that is both painful and inspiring.


Q: How did you discover this story?


MILLS: As a young wife and mother, I went to Louisiana’s Cane River in search of my children’s roots. As my study of the region became known, the local preservation society asked me to conduct a historical-site documentation project. It had been given a plantation home and estate grounds that it hoped to place on the National Register. In the end, the story that emerged was so fantastic the site was declared a National Historic Landmark. In peeling away layers of lore and controversy, we discovered that the home, known as Melrose, was only one of a dozen or more mansion houses that once graced the Isle and that the land on which Melrose stood was part of a plantation empire of 18,000 acres founded by a family of freed slaves under the more-tolerant culture of French and Spanish Louisiana.


Q: What is the relationship between fact and fiction in your novel?


MILLS: Faction is the best word to describe the Isle of Canes.  The story is drawn from thousands of documents unearthed in archives from Canada to Cuba to Mexico to France to Spain—research I personally conducted, individually and together with my late husband, a historian also. What’s more, the sheer size of the family—a cast of over a thousand in its first century and a half—offers a fantastic pool from which to draw the most representative characters in each generation. Yet no amount of records could ever chronicle all the intimate details of an individual life, and a storyteller must color in the blanks left by the written record. Because I’ve spent thirty-five years studying not just the Islanders but all the families with whom they lived, loved, labored, and sometimes feuded, I am confident I have painted my backdrops and clothed my characters as faithfully as a storyteller possibly could.


Q. What do you hope your readers will take with them after they finish Isle of Canes?


MILLS: That everyone deserves a chance to live up to their potential. That people are individuals and no one deserves to have labels forced upon them. That life’s choices have always been far more complicated than we assume from the stereotyped portrayals of history and that the past cannot fairly be measured by modern ideals. Above all, that family is the bedrock upon which all societies are built and that family should be—and can be—the haven that nurtures each new generation.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Isle of Canes, a book worth reading.

    I have found this book fascinating. The characters come to life with the descriptions on their history. The book makes me think about different points of view on the south. It is a very well written historical novel, you are there.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2004

    Skillful Blend of Fact and Story

    Reading this book, I stepped into a past I had not previously understood. Historical fact was blended so well with the story surrounding the characters that I felt like I knew some of these people who actually lived and went through heart-wrenching times. Yet their pride in who they were, their search for joy where they could find it, and their courage in living life as it met them, came through in triumph. These historical characters became SO REAL.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2004

    A powerful story......

    Isle of Canes is a powerful story you can¿t put down until you¿re done and won¿t forget even then. Raw and unflinching, painful but uplifting in the end, this true story of one family¿s rise from slavery to slaveownership goes far beyond anything yet put into print. Edward Jones¿s intriguing Known World tried to explain this troubled side of history; but his fictional family shows only one dimension, the stereotypical ex-slave-corrupted-by- former owner. Isle of Canes goes far beyond the stereotype, graphically exposing the dire consequences of what it was like to be ¿free people of color¿ in the slave South, as well as the emotional conflicts suffered by this forgotten caste that historian Ira Berlin calls ¿Slaves without Masters.¿ The author¿s foreword speaks of her three decades of studying mixed-race families, and the depth of her understanding is evident in this four- generation saga of a real Creole family and all that it lived through in 18th and 19th century Louisiana.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2004

    Should be Mandatory Reading in American History

    Isle of Canes is a highly successful depiction in miniature of southwest Louisiana history from the early 1700's to the early 1900's. The author skillfully weaves a complex tale of freedom vs. the institution of slavery against a backdrop of Spanish, French, and American governmental regimes. The settlement and development of the Isle of Canes is followed through four generations of interconnected families. A must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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