Lalita Tademy’s Cane River received that sure-to-make-it-a-best-seller “O” of approval from Oprah Winfrey, and I’m glad tor her. She had the guts to step out of a Silicone Valley executive suite into her study and start that painful process of putting one word in front of another till, ta-dah, there’s a book. Then agent/publisher/Oprah, and success. Living the dream for sure.
She’s now the author of three of these historical novels set in rural Louisiana, featuring characters from her ancestry, which began in slavery and succeeded, at least in her case, all the way to top of the organizational chart. So, who am I to quarrel with her work? Nobody, I guess, but I was not as enthralled with Cane River as I was with Tademy’s life story.
The book reads to me less like a novel than like an enhanced memoir. She covers each character–focusing on the women–through life’s trials, often from birth to death, almost as if they are being checked off a list. I felt there was often so much concentration on detail that we missed the emotion. Plus, there were so many characters that I could not get invested in the one or two or even three that it takes to become truly involved in such story of privation and suffering and thwarted hope.
An example is the scene in which the matriarch, Elisabeth, is reunited with her lost son. He was sold away from her when a small child and sent to a farm in Virginia. He returns as an adult. Neither has seen the other for decades, and she has no hint that he is coming. There are moments of puzzlement, he announces that he thinks he’s her son, and she walks off to announce him to others. I felt bereft and empty. Elisabeth hasn’t been painted as detached or unemotional. But suddenly she doesn’t even take a moment to connect. It felt as if the author had accomplished that reunion and it was time to move on to the next scene.
Genealogical charts and old photos appear from time to time in the pages. I suppose they are meant to connect the reader with both the story and its truth. To me, they were offputting. A genealogical chart has all the drama of a grocery list, and the photos were like watching the slides of someone else’s vacation. I had Tademy’s descriptions and my imagination to go by in shaping these characters’ appearances. Now, I was forced to interrupt what they call the fictive dream to see if the photo matched the description and my fantasy. A giant speed bump.
Of course, all the standard–and absolutely true–dramas of slavery are there. The constant fear of even the kindliest master. The prohibitions of both the law and custom that kept loving couples apart from both their true loves and their children. The multiple forced separations of people who should never have been forced apart. The ugliness of even post-slavery years when Jim Crow came in and found a thousand ways around the emancipation proclamation and all those post-civil war .
Those are stories well-known and often told. None the less poignant for being treated in the setting of a more-or-less true story. Yet, the emotional hooks and the drama were missing for me. Try Beloved. Toni Morrison shows how it’s done. In the meantime, more success to Tademy. Maybe plenty of people through her will find access to this shameful part of our history. And we all need to know it and feel it. It’s just that Cane River didn’t take me there.