Excerpt from Cane River by Lalita Tademy, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Cane River

By Lalita Tademy

Cane River
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2001,
    418 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2002,
    560 pages.

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"Mam'zelle and I went down to the quarter yesterday."

For Suzette there were real smells in the quarter no one tried to mask, loud sounds no one tried to quiet, and large motions no one tried to subdue. Weekdays only the smallest children were there, along with those too old for the field, the sick, new mothers, and the old woman who took care of all the little ones. Everyone else was gone, working sunup to sundown. After dark everyone was usually too tired from the day in the field to do much more than prepare their evening meal of ground cornmeal and their ration of bacon. A handful of meal, a little water, a pinch of lard, into the ashes to cook, and fall into bed exhausted after eating. But Saturday, after half-day labor, the quarter came alive with each household working their own patch garden, washing clothes, trading gossip, and bringing back fish or game along with stories of how they had caught it. Children mixed at will, white and black, broadcloth and homespun, nearly masters and nearly slaves not yet fully grown into their roles. Suzette's family lived in the quarter, including two sisters and a younger brother. There were moments when she wondered what it would have been like to live there instead of the big house.

"Papa made up two songs. One for Mam'zelle's birthday and a different one for mine."

Her father, Gerasíme, never gave Suzette hard looks when she used her house voice, unlike some others in the quarter. He was coppery brown, small framed, and always glad to see her, no matter how tired he might be. With his booming laugh, he called her his "big-eyed gal." Gerasíme's wild mane of springy black hair couldn't decide whether to stay down or curl up, so it did both, and his face was so smooth that he didn't have to shave like the other men. When Suzette had asked him about it, he'd said it was because he was half Indian. Her father was a favorite in both the quarter and the big house because he played the fiddle, and Louis Derbanne often got requests to rent him out for the frequent parties held up and down Cane River.

Suzette grew quiet when Madame Françoise Derbanne swept into the cookhouse, the silk of her pale green visiting dress rustling. Françoise's heavily corseted build was typical of well-fed Creole ladies, and her fading brown hair had been darkened with coffee-grounds water and upswept in calculated curls. Both her pointed nose and chin were inclined slightly, and her feet were nestled in black hightop shoes with leather-covered buttons. Usually she had Elisabeth come to her in the dark back room of the big house to decide on the menus for the week. But from time to time she appeared in the cookhouse unannounced, being careful not to let anything touch her or her fine clothes. It was an old ceremony between the mistress and her cook, and they had been acting it out since Elisabeth had come to the plantation fifteen years before.

"Elisabeth," Madame said, crinkling her nose as if she had caught wind of something slightly foul, "I've just talked to Oreline, and I want today's supper to be special. I have promised her a birthday treat of her favorites. There will be ten of us in all."

"Yes'm, Madame Françoise," said Elisabeth, eyes still on her worktable, hands never stopping their rhythm.

Suzette tried not to smile as she watched the two women, one tall, with skin the color of day-old grits, the other short and dark. She had already told her mother each of the choices she and Oreline had decided upon.

"We will have chicken and tasso jambalaya, sweet-potato pone, green beans, cala with the gooseberry preserves we put up last year, and peach cobbler," Françoise instructed.

"Yes'm."

Suzette was surprised Madame could not smell the peaches hidden in the pantry. Their aroma still lingered in the air of the cookhouse, competing with the sharp yeast smell of the starter sponge for cala they had concocted the night before, holding the promise of the rice fritters to come. She had peeled the potatoes for her mother and had been careful to watch how Elisabeth combined the boiled potatoes, cornmeal, flour, and cooking soda and left it in the night air to ferment before mixing in the boiled rice to make the sponge. Just before mealtime would come the flour, eggs, butter, and milk, the stiff batter to beat, the dropping of the calas by the spoonful onto the blistering skillet.

Copyright © 2001 by Lalita Tademy.

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