About the Author
A former vice-president at Sun Microsystems, Lalita Tademy left the corporate world to immerse herself in tracing her family's past and in writing.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1"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.
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.
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."
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.
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?"
"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..."
Reading Group Guide
1. Philomene says that to be a slave was "to have nothing but still have something left to lose." Discuss the profound, but different, losses suffered by each generation of women.
2. The relationships between Suzette, Philomene and Emily and the white fathers of their children range from flat-out rape, to calculated financial arrangements cemented by childbearing, to real, if forbidden and dangerous love. What did you find most surprising about these often complex relationships?
3. Do you think Doralise was in a position to help Suzette and Philomene more than she did?
4. Cane River dramatizes the roots of turmoil within America's black community on issues of skin color. Emily, for example, is described by the author as being "color-struck." In what ways does color-consciousness continue to afflict black and mixed-race societies today? How, in Cane River, was the color-struck attitude a help or hindrance in successive generations' rising fortunes?
5. During the course of researching Cane River, as she kept unearthing tender relationships in unexpected situations, Tademy found herself frequently being forced to rethink some long-held beliefs about slavery. What, if anything, surprised you most about the relationships described in the book? In which ways did you find Tademy's depictions believable? Upsetting? Eye-opening?
6. Cane River was a community made up of French planters, slaves and gens de couleur libre, or free people of color who "had accumulated a great deal of land and wealth and were just as likely to be slave owners as their white neighbors." How do you think the free people of color justified playing a willful role in their kinsmen's oppression?
7. The free people of color considered themselves neither black nor white. Can you think of any parallels in today's society?
8. Each of the four women in the book approached life differently and handled the relationships to the men and children in their lives very differently. Discuss the differences.
9. Do you think that each of the women was a good mother? Was there more that any one of them could have done for their children than they did?
10. How-or did-each of the women fight against the oppression of their lives? Do you think there was more that Elisabeth or Suzette in particular could have done?
11. Philomene seems to be the strongest of the women. If you agree with this statement, what do you think accounts for her unusual strength? If you disagree, why-and who do you think was actually the strongest? The weakest?
12. Philomene coldly made a choice to stay with Narcisse Fredieu after he returned to Cane River following the Civil War. At this point, she was now free. Why, then, would she make this decision?
13. Suzette changed her last name three times. Why was this so significant to her?
14. Did Joseph Billes do everything he could to protect Emily and their children? Did Emily do everything possible to protect her children?
15. Elisabeth called all of her descendants to her bedside when she knew she was dying? What were the long-term repercussions of this act for her family?
16. Sunday dinners were a major event in Cane River. What made them so important? Family dinners, in which generations come together on a regular basis, seem to be a dying tradition in this country. What effect do you think this has on families today?
17. Cane River was a community with both rigid hierarchies and notable exceptions to these hierarchies. Do you think that Cane River's historical divisions of class, race and gender have contemporary parallels?
18. What are the similarities and differences between Cane River of the l800s and the United States today?
19. In many ways, Cane River, a rural farming community established by French Catholics, was unlike other southern communities of the time. What did you find most surprising about the community and its leading citizens?
20. Each of the four major women characters in Cane River was born a slave, but even so, each made distinct choices regarding how she was going to live her life. What were their choices? What were the other options they might have chosen?
21. When Madame slaps Suzette in the cookhouse, Elisabeth doesn't interfere, nor does she have a heart-to-heart conversation afterward with her daughter about what happened? Why not? Was this realistic?
22. What do you think would have happened to each of the main characters if they has not been so deeply rooted in family?
23. Which living situation do you think was easier: big house or quarter?
24. Emily, in the very last scene in the book, takes a seat in the front row of the bus to return home from her trip to town. Is this something you believe she would do? Why or why not?
25. Elisabeth, Suzette and Philomene don't talk about slavery with Emily, who was too young to remember slave life. In fact, they don't talk much about those times with one another. How does this avoidance shape them and affect the younger generation?
26. When Joseph moves Emily out of the house where they raised their children in order to marry a white woman, Emily asks to take only those things she considers to be her possessions. Was this foolish pride that possibly deprived her children of a larger inheritance?
27. Joseph stays close to Emily in his later years. Why do you think Emily continued to allow Joseph into her life after he kicked her out of their home and married another woman?
28. Emily's daughters Mary and Josephine never marry, and her son T.O. married a woman radically different than his mother. What do you think this says about the long-reaching effects of Emily's choices and behavior as a mother?
29. Elisabeth says that everyone along Cane River was 'waiting for the spider to come home." What did she mean?
30. The author of Cane River made the decision to turn her family's story into a work of fiction rather than nonfiction? What do you think motivated her to do so, and do you think it was the right decision
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)