Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- It's a tragic fact that the voices of many African-Americans who endured
slavery in America were never recorded. Lalita Tademy's decision to
re-create these lost voices by using the format of a historical novel is her
artistic response to this gap in our national history. Does her artistic
decision work for you?
- The Prologue is written in the voice of Polly Tademy as she turns 100 in
1935. As the wife of Sam Tademy, she had lived through the Colfax massacre
of Easter Sunday 1873. Of herself and her women friends, she writes:
"Outlasting our men our husbands, our sons, even some grandsons. We all
had it hard, but the men, they had it worse, specially those what come up on
life from the front." From what you read in Red River, do you agree that the
African-American males in this historical novel "had it worse"? Discuss why
you agree or disagree.
- One premise of Red River seems to be that after the Civil Warleading
all the way up to the presentblack men suffered a particular kind of
degradation different from that which black women suffered. Do you agree
with this basic premise? Furthermore, in Red River, would you say that the
author deliberately sets out to explore more deeply the struggles of the
male characters than those of the female characters?
- Again in the Prologue, Polly Tademy extols the achievements of
African-American males of her era: "What our colored men try to do for the
rest of us in Colfax matter. They daren't be forgot. While we women keep the
wheel spinning, birthing the babies and holding together a decent home to
raise them in, taking care of them what too young or too old to take care of
theyself, our menfolks does battle how they got to in a world want to see
them broke down and tame." In this novel, do you see a comparison between
the female struggling to tend the home fires, and the male struggling to
compete and survive with dignity in the hostile world outside the home?
- In Chapter 1, Israel Smith describes his obligation to occupy the Colfax
Courthouse as "a job." Discuss the special significance
of a black man's progressing from slave status to that of a full-fledged,
free citizen of the United States.
- In Chapter 2, Isaac "McCully" McCullen talks about his brown fedora as
his "voting hat." When he first exercised his right to vote (casting his
vote for the Republican Party), he wore this hat. He placed a heron feather
in its brim and called it "a rare feather from the phoenix bird what lived
in the desert for five hundred years, go up in flames, raise itself up brand
new from the ashes." Discuss why the phoenix rising from the ashes is an
inspiring image for African-Americans emerging from the slave era in
- McCully's brown fedora is passed down from generation to generation.
Discuss why an authentic relic from a historic event acquires deeper and
deeper meaning with the passage of time. Do you agree that each new
generation should be taught to understand and preserve and cherish these
relics that commemorate an ancestor's achievements?
- Scattered throughout Red River, there are over forty-four "Figures,"
which are actual documents, photographs, and drawings from the historical
record. Discuss how the author's inclusion of historical documentation in
the midst of her novel's fictional world enhances or detracts from
your reading experience.
- In Chapter 6, Sam Tademy learns that Spenser stole large quantities of
foodstuffs from Craft's store to feed the men and their families who had
been uprooted to occupy and defend the Colfax Courthouse. Sam opposes this
theft on principle; others support it for a variety of reasons. Discuss both
views: those opposing the theft, and those supporting it.
- In the days leading up to the Colfax massacre, Jessie McCullen is
murdered by a band of white men, and at the memorial service for Jessie, Sam
Tademy expresses his opposition to the impending conflict. He says: "One
day, Lord willing, we build a colored school right here in Colfax...We need
education, not bullets. That the only way we win
We got to make stepping
stones out of stumbling blocks. That the only way progress last." Despite
Sam's speech, the Colfax massacre occurs. Yet Sam, years later, will achieve
his dream of a colored school in Colfax. Do you agree with Sam Tademy that
the Colfax massacre ought not have happened? As he preaches nonviolence,
does Sam Tademy remind you of other figures from the civil rights era in the
middle of the 20th century who also preached nonviolence?
- In Chapter 7, Sam Tademy's childhood recalls the small cabin in which
his mother raised him and his brother, Doe, and the brief late-night visit
of a man his mother introduces as his father. This father impresses upon his
sons Sam and Doe: "We from far away. We wasn't brought to this country as no
slave. We come free, of our own will. We come from the Nile Delta, and my
daddy pay passage by his sweat-work on a ship supposed to take him to a land
of opportunity...Our real name Ta-ta-mee. Say it." How does this scene
affect you? Imagine a young boy meeting his father only once, in one
desperate and fleeting encounter. Discuss the cataclysmic effect of such a
- During the Colfax massacre, Israel Smith endures and witnesses cruelties
almost beyond what the human mind can fathom. His physical body, grievously
wounded, does manage to survive; however his psyche never fully recovers.
Nowadays, the medical/psychiatric professions have given a diagnostic name
to Israel's mental state. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is a diagnosis for
soldiers, especially infantrymen who have fought in the front lines in
ground combat. Do you think Israel Smith suffered from this disorder?
- At one point, Jackson, comparing his race to the Caucasian race, says:
"We farm better, we breed better, we [survive] better..." How does his
statement affect you, a reader in the 21st century?
- At Noby Smith's funeral, his brother David comes to pay his respects,
and his relatives whisper in his ear, "You're not welcome here." What, in
your estimation, was David's most unforgivable crime? And do you think that
by this time David's family and extended family should have forgiven him for
- In Red River, Lalita Tademy re-creates, in vivid scenes, numerous
incidents of racially motivated hate crimes. Which incidents stayed with you
the most powerfully? Why?
- When Green, Jackson, and Noby go out night-hunting in Chapter 22, Green
is accidentally killed. In what way is his death a catalyst in this
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.