In her first novel,
Cane River (2000), Lalita Tademy explored her mother's
side of the family, inspired by the discovery of an 1850 bill of
sale in the public records of Louisiana that recorded the
purchase of her great-great-great-great-grandmother and seven
family members. Cane River was a huge success - an Oprah
book club choice that spent 17 weeks on the New York Times
bestseller list. Now, Lalita is back with a novel based on her
father's side of the family - a raw, visceral story plucked from
a time and place in history that has been all but forgotten.
Her story opens in 1873 during "the scary time" of Reconstruction following the end of the American civil war. The Tademy family and their neighbors are working with grit and determination to make new, independent lives for themselves on their own tiny holdings of flood-prone land outside of Colfax. They dream of a better future for themselves and of starting a school where their children can learn and in turn improve their lives. They even dare to dream of changing the political climate.
In November 1872 they assert their citizenship by voting for their new sheriff. The result is close but in favor of the Republican party candidate, a decision confirmed by the new Republican Governor of Louisiana. A violent standoff ensues at the courthouse triggered when the Democratic party try to unlawfully take office causing about 150 Republican blacks to occupy the courthouse in defense of the legitimate (white) Republican sheriff while they wait for support from the federal government. Weeks pass and no aid comes. The deadlock is broken when members of the "White League" set fire to the courthouse and massacre the majority of those inside as they try to escape the burning building - some are shot down; others are captured, tortured and hung; a handful escape.
In the second half of Red River Tademy creates a gripping generational saga covering 60 years of her family's history up until the 1930s, as they struggle against poverty, racial attacks, and natural disasters to establish a school for their children and secure lives for themselves. Some reviewers feel that the author tries to pack too many characters into these chapters but I found it fascinating and uplifting. As in Cane River, Tademy populates her tale with archival material from the period - letters, newspaper articles, photos of her ancestors and of historical sites such as the extraordinarily tactless historical marker that still stands outside the court house in Colfax which reads, "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South."
BookBrowse spoke to 'Lita just before Christmas 2006. She was already gearing up for a grueling PR tour for Red River, but despite this she was gracious enough to take some time out to answer questions about herself and Red River - which you can read in full at BookBrowse.
This review was originally published in January 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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