Large Print Reviews

Cane River
By Lalita Tademy
Read by Shari Belafonte, Edwina Moore, and Jo Marie Payton

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Cane River

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Cane River
By Lalita Tademy
Read by Shari Belafonte, Edwina Moore, and Jo Marie Payton
Time Warner Audio Books, (2001)
An Abridged Audio Recording on 4 Cassettes
ISBN: 1-58621-062-9
Genre: Historical Fiction
Other Available Editions: Large Print | Paperback | Audio CD (Abridged)

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 4, 2001

Cane River is a moving, and riveting account of life in Louisiana, told through the stories of four women born into slavery. Although a work of fiction, Cane River is based on the in-depth research that Lalita Tademy conducted into her own family's background. Tademy explains, in her introduction to this book, why she began her search into her familiar past, and how that search turned into an obsession as she learned ever more about the incredible woman from whom she was descended.

This story begins in 1834, and is set on the Rose Dew plantation, situated along the banks of the Cane River in Louisiana. Here, Tademy's foremother Elisabeth served as a slave, and it was here that Elisabeth's daughter, Suzette would be born. Rose Dew was situated in a French-Creole region where French was the predominant language. Incongruously, this was also a region that had a significant population of "free people of color," many of whom owned slaves.

This story seamlessly chronicles the lives of four-generations of women: Elisabeth, Suzette, Philomene, and Emily. It follows their lives from the days of slavery, through the civil war, the period of reconstruction, and concludes in the 20th century. It explores life on the plantation, including a heart wrenching scene in which the Rose Dew slaves are auctioned off in order to settle the owner's estate. Succinctly, Tademy put the reader on the plantation, and allows you to vicariously feel the agony of those who are treated as nothing more than cattle. She also offers a candid look at the motives and feelings of those who bargained for human flesh.

As the story opens, Elisabeth is a mature woman with a young daughter, Suzette. The narrative explores Elisabeth's history and current situation, and then moves fluidly from Elisabeth's story, to that of Suzette. Tademy follows Suzette as she grows to womanhood, lets us spy on her as she discovers the passion and disappointment of first love, and freedom. Next we follow Philomene, Suzette's daughter, who grows up to become an independent woman. And the story concludes with a glimpse at Emily's life. Emily is Philomene's daughter, and her life, like that of Suzette and Philomene's is centered around her desire to be independent, and her children. And like the woman before her, Emily is to bear illegitimate children, fathered by White planters. Although her children are acknowledged by their father, they are unable to inherit anything from him due to local law - a fact that Emily must battle against in order to protect her children's rights. All the women chronicled in this story are strong willed, passionate, and determined that their children will have a better life than they themselves had. It is their drive to better the lives of their children, and the means that they had to resort to in order to achieve their goals, that is the most compelling element of this narrative.

Although this audio edition of Cane River is abridged, the continuity of the story is well-maintained throughout and does not seem to have any voids in the narration. However, it is a story that leaves you wanting to know more about the women involved, and how the family continued to progress. I look forward to reading the large print edition of this book, which was just released by Thorndike Press, to see what was left out of this audio edition.

This audio edition is also read by a cast of three, Shari Belafonte, Jo Marie Payton, and Edwina Moore. Combined, they bring the story to life, giving each character a unique voice. Their reading infuses such a sense of vitality into the story that the reading almost sounds as if you are listening to a stage play. This is a marvelous book, both as a work of fiction and for its historical significance. Historically, it gives the reader a realistic glimpse into a bygone era, an era that is usually described from a male-centric viewpoint. Having this story told via the lives of these four women helps the reader to better understand the effect that slavery had on women. It shows the tremendous burden placed upon the women who had to raise families, never knowing when they might be torn apart. It also explores other pressures that women faced, both sexual and economic, that are often overlooked in the history books. Cane River also illustrates a few of the struggles that African-American women had to face, once they had obtained their freedom.

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