The novel Cane River is so closely based on Lalita Tademy’s ancestors that she includes family photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings. In 1995, Tademy quit her job as a vice president of Sun Microsystems so she could research her family’s history and write a novel. Cane River was published in 2001.
Tademy starts her novel with the story of a woman seven generations removed from herself: Elisabeth, a slave in the early 1800’s on a plantation along Cane River in Louisiana. The novel is divided into three sections, each bearing the name of one of Tademy’s female ancestors: Suzette, Philomene, and Emily.
Elisabeth and her daughter Suzette work in the house of a French-speaking Creole family. Suzette is a companion to the family’s daughter, and in fact prepares for and goes through First Communion with the children of white families. However, her status as a slave is soon brought home to her: she is repeatedly raped by a Frenchman and bears him two children, one of whom is Philomene.
This begins a process of “whitening” that continues for generations, and in fact some of the women are described as “color-struck”: proud of their descendants’ light-colored skin. Philomene is persuaded to enter into a long-term relationship with a white slave-owner. Her daughter Emily, born during the Civil War and educated at a convent, falls in love with a white man. Emily’s children are so light-skinned that they could pass for white, and some of them do just that. However, Tademy’s grandfather (Emily’s son), who looked white, chose to marry a brown-skinned woman.
The novel takes us into the imagined lives of these women as they live through enslavement, the Civil War, and its aftermath. The women struggle with slavery, prejudice, and miscegenation laws. Tademy includes sections from the points of view of some of the men in the women’s lives, to give us a more complete picture of life in that era.