Cane River was the December selection for Books, Babes and Bordeaux. One of our members really had her heart set on reading it (and it was an Oprah pick awhile back), but I had no idea what it was about. After some checking around, I was intrigued with the book solely based on the author's bio. Lalita Tademy progressed through her life as an extremely bright, gifted student and ultimately graduated from UCLA with an MBA. She worked her way through Silicon Valley, and came out at the top by securing a job as a VP for Sun Microsystems. Talk about shattering the glass ceiling! She left it all behind, however, in 1995 to pursue her need for information about her family history. The outcome was this book, which is based on her geneology, with a bit of poetic license to bring the characters to life. Isn't that compelling?
Synopsis: Starting in the early 1800's and ending with the early 1900's, Tademy takes us through four generations of women living in the Cane River area in Louisiana (ending with Tademy's great great-grandmother Emily). Epic in scope, we are companions to these women as they work as slaves to their French Creole masters, bearing their children and thus "bleaching" the bloodlines and skin color. The women lose husbands and children to illnesses, are sold off and separated to make ends meet, but they still remain steadfast in their commitment to family and to stay close, often walking for miles to attend Sunday dinner together. With each new generation, the women begin to work the system, gaining land from their wealthy masters in order to provide for their offspring.
Their journey is to take a stroll through the history books. Slavery, epidemics of yellow fever and cholera, the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the struggle for equality. Not only does it give the reader an excellent perspective of American history during this period - one that is not always told - but is obviously a labor of love for the author.
My thoughts: It is not hard to see why Oprah supported this book. It has all the ingredients she looks for...an epic tale, a history lesson of blacks in America, and some really strong women. It isn't like this was all new to me - after all, I did read Roots! But a few things popped out at me and stuck in my craw.
I found it horrifying that consistently and repeatedly the white masters would fix their gaze upon a young slave girl (often under the age of 14) and force himself upon her. She never had a chance! She would have umpteen of his kids until he tired of her and moved on to someone new. It gave me pleasure to see Tademy's ancestors get some land and money for their efforts.
I also never considered the predicament of the light-skinned African-American. Not only were they banished from the white community, but from the black community as well. Two of Tademy's great great-grandmother Emily's daughters never married because they were acceptable to neither black or white suitors.
Tademy's character development of her ancestors was superb. These ladies
ranged from being sun-weathered and meek, to ballsy and strong-willed, to cultured and sharp. The author brought these women to life.
All this being said, while I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it didn't blow my mind. I can't really put my finger on what was missing. Perhaps the scope was too broad to be encapsulated into 12 discs? Was it the writing? Whatever it is, it is subtle. And I would still recommend this book as a worthwhile read.
A few words about the audio production: I'd never heard of the narrator, Robin Miles, but she is a master at accents. She tackled French, French Creole, Southern, and a few others with ease and flourish. It appears she has quite the resume, and I will make sure I look out for her in the future.
There is a sizable cast of characters in this book, and I thought it only fair to mention that in the audio format, it can be initially confusing to sort them all out. Because the characters are distinctive, you can figure it out pretty quickly, so if you decide to listen to the audio version of this book, a little patience will pay off.
Thoughts from Books, Babes and Bordeaux: We didn't have a strong turnout for this meeting...only four of us, and one did not read the book. (FYI, the non-reader had been rendered disgusted with all things literature after finishing Franzen's Freedom and hating it). Two of the four of us liked the book, and felt frustration with the plight of these amazing women, but didn't love the book. The fourth has read the book three times in the last month, and thought it was the best thing she'd read in a long time. After discussing the strength of the female characters, and their disadvantage against the predatory white men in their life, we really ran out of things to talk about. Perhaps this was the subtle ingredient missing from the novel.