After critically reflecting on what I read last year, I was pretty dismayed to see that I have not been reading as diversely as I would like. Last year I only read three books by people who were not Caucasian, and only three books that were originally published in a language other than English (and, disappointingly, two of those books actually fell in both those categories). One of my reading goals this year was to read more diversely, and the first book I read by a person of colour is one that I picked up by chance at a book fair: “Cane River” by Lalita Tademy.
“Cane River” is a fictionalised biography of four generations of black women in Louisiana, USA. The story starts with Suzette, a house slave, and her mother Elisabeth who are owned by the Derbanne family. Suzette’s dreams of becoming sophisticated and free are dashed first by the slaveowner’s family friend and then by the slaveowner’s own family breakdown. Years later, Suzette’s daughter Philomene faces her own troubles with the men in her life and the looming Civil War. A free woman, Philomene’s own daughter Emily is able to go to school and get an education. However, in a state still divided by segregation, Emily finds herself unable to pursue all of her dreams. While each has their own struggles, each of these women is united by an unshakable family bond and a dedication to make their children’s lives better.
This was an incredibly moving and empowering book. The women in this family were tenacious and long-lived, and even Elisabeth lived to see the incredible changes that took place both in her own family’s position and in her country. Tademy’s writing style is honest and straightforward, interspersed with copies of real documents about her ancestors, letting the adversities and the triumphs themselves tell the story. It is a very personal story and an incredible insight into the horrors of slavery and the racist hangover that persisted in the USA well after the Civil War.
I think the only thing that was a little frustrating is that the writing style is quite plain. While the characters and their experiences are very interesting, I did find the lack of decoration in the writing a little tedious and the book wasn’t quite as immersive as it could have been. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story and an extremely educational book about the darker sides of American history. If you’re looking to diversify your reading, this is as good a place as any to start.
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