CC_coverCane River tells the story of 100 years of Lalita Tademy’s (mostly) female ancestors in Louisiana, from roughly 1830-1930 . It’s a novel, but all of the people really lived when and where she says they did.

Before choosing it, I read a lot of reviews that said this was a page-turner, and up-all-night-until-you-finish kind of book, and they were right. All of these women, from slave-born Elisabeth to independent Emily, confront their situations differently according to both their in-born personalities and the changing social environments in which they operate. Some have affectionate relationships with their white French lovers, and some are in it for what they can get (actually, for what they can keep), and some have no choice about whose children they bear. In a situation where they cannot call their bodies or lives their own, they struggle to keep family together, to hold on to this one tangible thing.

As I read, I did find myself wondering which bits of the stories were real events in the lives of the people who lived, and which were emotions and attitudes made-up by the author, which just made it more intriguing. Even in the case of the double murder (!!) for which newspaper articles and coroner reports are reproduced, you still don’t know what really happened.

I found myself utterly fascinated by the photos. Except for the very earliest, there are good photos of every one of the main characters. There is the basic pleasure of scrutinizing their faces for the personalities they show in the novel. Then I kept looking at this family, in their suits and dresses and carefully pinned hair, and wondering how the society of rural Louisiana could justify denying them basic rights –like marrying their white lovers, inheriting the property of their white fathers, and riding in the front of the bus –because they were black, when they were so obviously white. The impossibility of looking at these pale faces and chestnut hair and seeing an obvious ‘other’, reveals the history of racist rationalization as so completely batshit crazy.

Recommended reading:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler

Passing — Nella Larsen

The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wench –Dolen Perkins-Valdez (coming Jan 2010)

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)