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Tag: Civil War

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

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.

Cane River is a fascinating narrative of the lives of African-American women in a French-speaking region of the southern USA. The author photo above is from Tademy’s web site.

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, first published in 1962, is a classic of Appalachian literature. At the time of her birth, author Wilma Dykeman’s family had resided in the mountains of North Carolina for generations, and the novel takes place in these mountains during and after the Civil War.

The novel follows the main character, Lydia, from young womanhood to death. Shortly after their marriage her husband, Mark, decides to join the war effort on the Union side, while her father and brothers fight for the Confederacy. There are no hard feelings within her own family due to Mark’s decision, largely because slavery seems not to exist in this area, and they are fighting more out of loyalty than strong convictions to one side or the other.

Outliers and marauders from both sides steal from the families in the area. In an early scene, outliers take the farm animals from Lydia’s parents’ home, and Lydia’s mother, Sarah, is tortured to get her to tell the marauders where she has hidden her family’s stores of meat. Sarah is never the same again. Lydia and Mark believe that someone in the community betrayed them, pointing the criminals in their direction for some reason.

Once the war ends, Lydia and Mark buy land and build a home deeper into the mountains. Much of the book concerns the work Lydia does in her home and on the farm, the children she bears and raises, her efforts to earn some money, and the community members she interacts with. At times the family struggles to make a living, and tough decisions must be made: whether to divert land into the cash crop of tobacco; how to help a child who’s mentally disabled; how to pay for higher education; and even whether to leave the community.

About a third of the way through the book I almost stopped reading because Lydia seemed so passive, reacting to what was happening around her but not taking much independent action. However, I kept reading, and not only did the story pick up, but I also realized that this novel is not so much about one woman as about the entire community she is part of.

Lydia wants bring a school to her community, and she pursues this goal despite many setbacks. Towards the end, Lydia witnesses a dramatic revelation that suggests a path forward for her school, if she’s willing to take brave action.

By the poignant end of the book I’d come to know and love these characters. For more information on Wilma Dykeman, see her biographical entry at the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. The above photo of Dykeman is from the Mountain Express of Asheville, NC, which hosts a Wilma Dykeman birthday celebration in May.

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

If you are looking for a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, here it is: Jubilee. Written by an African-American woman and first published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The photo above shows Walker’s great-grandmother, the “Vyry” of the novel. She took after her white slave-owner father in the color of her skin. I found this photo on the U Space Gallery web site.

Jubilee covers the same time period as Gone with the Wind; they both take place in Georgia; they are both based on family stories passed down; and they both showcase strong women characters. However, unlike Gone with the Wind, which is told from the point of view of white slave owners, Jubilee is told largely from the point of view of African-Americans. While Gone with the Wind insists that blacks were better off enslaved, and includes black characters who claim they don’t want to be free, Jubilee shows the true struggles of blacks, whether they were born free, or born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jubilee is the better novel in many ways. In addition to its focus on African-American experiences, it includes sections showing the thoughts and experiences of slave owners and poor, struggling white families, so readers get a more complete, accurate view of the time period. While towards the end Gone with the Wind suffers from a rushed and overly compressed story line, Jubilee is well developed throughout.

Jubilee follows the story of Vyry, the daughter of a black slave mother and her white slave owner. As mentioned above, Vyry looks white and bears a strong resemblance to her half-sister Lillian, who is the master’s daughter by his white wife. However, the master never acknowledges Vyry as his daughter, and continues to enslave her, even allowing her to be whipped. Vyry wants to marry a free black man, Randall Ware, but her master won’t allow it. Randall flees north and joins the Union Army.

Will Vyry and Randall be united after the war? Will Vyry manage to send her children to school? The novel answers these questions while also showing the day-to-day struggles of Vyry before and during the war, and as she tries to find a place to settle down after the war ends. Jubilee is the classic Civil War novel everyone should be reading. And 2016, being the 50th anniversary of its original publication, is the perfect year to read this book.