Behind the Fiction Past
By Brenda Weeaks
Interview with Lalita Tademy  Cane River Book Review

Hello and welcome to Behind the Fiction. This month, I have chosen to highlight a book that was actually sent for review. As I was sorting though the books to send them off to their prospective reviewers, one caught my attention. Intrigued, I opened the cover, read the book jacket, and found I couldn’t put it down. Once I started reading, every spare moment I could find, I ran back to the old southern community of Cane River and the Creole plantation where the author began her tale. Behind this memorable saga is Lalita Tademy. Cane River is a fiction account of her Creole ancestors in the south. 

Below this paragraph you will find links to genealogy sites I discovered when I was bitten by the genie bug sometime ago. Below that, you will find an interview with Ms. Tademy. After the interview you will find links leading to other information about Lalita Tademy and Cane River. Enjoy.

Directory of Royal Genealogical Data
Ancestry. Com - Will cost money.
Magna Charta of Dames and Barons
Family History Links
Southern Style Geneology
An extended list of Geneology Links

A Hundred Years of Life
An Interview with Lalita Tademy 
By Brenda Weeaks

I really wanted this particular column and interview to happen, but wasn't sure it would. The Time Warner web page was down with some serious problems and my Warner contact had her hands full. But like a trooper, Pooja, pulled through with the author information and promised an email interview. But again, I just wasn't sure if it would all come together because Ms. Tademy was on a very busy promotional schedule, and it's not as if we are The Times.  A week later I was thrilled to see the answered questions back in my box, and now I have another reason to admire Ms. Tademy. Thanks Pooja -- job well done!

BW: Cane River is an exceptional, emotional read created from both truth and invention. When exactly did you decide to mix fact with fiction and create Cane River the book?

Lalita: There was a lot of trial and error at the beginning of the decision to take over a thousand documents and synthesize them into book form, but it came to me pretty quickly that I wanted to explore the characters and motivations of my ancestors as much as relate the events in their
lives. What pulled me in was imagining the personal life strategies each of the four women in my lineage chose to guide them through very tough times.

BW: In the opening with little Suzette and the rose bush, immediately I thought no matter what this family goes through with spunk like that leading them, they will survive. Where did you come up with the opening? 

Lalita: The opening was one of the very last things I wrote, but I wanted a short scene to portray my great-great-great grandmother as a slave girl before the full weight of the constraints of her life were clear to her, when she was still full of dreams. Many of the family stories I heard as a child and as an adult about coping during oppresive times were full of small, almost invisible acts of personal defiance that cried out "I do exist, whether you know it or not!"

BW: You start your story with ancestors who were slaves on a small, Creole plantation. Have you gone back to research any of your distant French relatives, such as Eugene Daurat? If not, are you planning to?

Lalita: I went to the south of France last year and walked the village of Pezilla de Riviere where my great grandfather Joseph Billes was born in 1841. Billes is still a common name there, dating back to the1500's, and the current mayor is a Billes. I have also traced Narcisse Fredieu's line back to the 1400's in France. Eugene Daurat's trail went cold.

BW: I was wondering if some of the family traits mentioned in the book were true in your family's history.  Such as, Philomene's gift of "glimpsing" (if so, are any of the "glimpsings" in the story true?)  and Suzette's sister, Palmire's deafness (if so, are there any other deaf in the family history?) [Page Note: Cane River is on our Deaf Character page]

Lalita: It appears that Palmire was truly deaf. At least she was listed as so on several of the plantation record documents that I have. Even with this disclosed 'disability', Palmire sold for a high sum of money in1850, on the high end of the curve, so must have been considered a  good worker and very valuable. As for Philomene's glimpsings, if she could reach across four generations to me, I pretty much believe she could do most anything.

BW: Elisabeth, Suzette, Philomene, and Emily are all memorable characters. No two alike in personality, except in the desire to be free in more ways than one. Do you feel you have captured each of the your ancestors likeness in the book?

Lalita: I can only hope that I have. Except for Emily and a bit with Philomene, I had to use the events that swirled around these characters and the final outcomes to try to piece together their personalities, instead of having family stories as a guide. No one in my family prior to this search knew of Suzette or Elisabeth's existence. That being said, I am satisfied with the characters as they developed and sharpened, and believe that what they had in common was a fierce determination to provide more opportunity for their children.

BW: The historical details, atmosphere, and dialogue of the old south are well done. Tell us about your research into this part of the book.

Lalita: I actually divided up the 130 year time span into decades, and tried to read as much as possible about the south and Cane River specifically during each ten year period to get the mood and feel of  the time and place. There were recessions, economic booms, floods, epidemic disease outbreaks, sleepy times, violent periods. I read creole diaries and slave narratives, fiction and essays, personal letters and court proceedings to get at mood. I used all of it for the backdrop to tell the stories of the characters.

BW: In hindsight, do you see things you wish you had included or left  out? 

Lalita: Nothing major, but I did find out after the book was finished that my great grandmother Emily and great grandfather Joseph named their first child Angelite, after Joseph's mother in France. I definitely would have included that in the book.

BW: Do you remember the first time you heard your ancestors mentioned in a conversation?

Lalita That would have to be the story of my great grandmother Emily dancing in the front room of her farmhouse to her victrola, or sitting my mother (when she was a little girl) up on her horse for a ride at her farmhouse. Whatever the story was about Emily, it always oozed with an absolute joy for life.

BW: In knowing that parts of their family history would be revealed in Cane River, how did your family react to the finished work?

Lalita: The most suspenseful reaction was my mother's. We were always taught that family business is private. But she has come around. And she was always proud and supportive.

BW: Tell us how you felt once you collected the pieces of your heritage to create this wonderful tale.

Lalita: I am extremely pleased to be able to pass this work on to my niece and  nephews, because it is so much more accessable than the huge collection of documents that I started from. Trying to absorb over a thousand records of one type or another can be overwhelming, especially when "facts" from different sources conflict with one another. But I think Cane River is a cohesive story, covering a hundred years in the life of one American family in the south.

BW: Now that you know your ancestors better, whom do you feel you take after most?

Lalita: Philomene. Determination and resourcefulness in playing the hand you're dealt mark her character, as they do mine. I don't have the advantage of seeing into the future however, try as I might.

BW: Because of the research, have you found existing relatives that you didn't know before?

Lalita: Yes. Many. More on the white than the black side, going back to the late 1700's or early 1800's for the common ancestor. Some have family stories of their own that include my great grandmother Emily, and she consistently comes out as a positive, beloved figure.

BW: In the book, T.O.'s wife tells him their children will be raised speaking English instead of French.  Was this true in your family's life or has the French language of your ancestors been passed down?

Lalita: It was one of the worst obstacles in my genealogy search that I couldn't speak French, which made it difficult to do much of the early 1800's research where most personal letters and documents were in French. Because of this, I had to hire a professional genealogist who was also a specialist on Cane River customs and culture. It took almost 2 years for her to find the 1850 Bill of Sale that identified Suzette and Elisabeth for the first time, and pushed that side of the lineage back another 50 years. My mother was never taught French either, and it was a conscious choice to raise the children as Americans.

BW: Is any of the original property mentioned in Cane River still in your family?

Lalita: The 68 acres originally deeded by Joseph Billes to his children is now owned by my uncle.

BW: Having been the vice-president of Sun Microsystems and quitting to research you family history full time, what are you plans now, aside from the publicity work for Cane River? Is there more writing in your future? 

Lalita: As soon as I finish with the publicity for Cane River, I will go back to writing my second book, which is about 50% complete.

BW: Do you have a web page yet?

Lalita: Soon. I have the domain name,, but haven't had a chance to construct it quite yet.

BW: How can your new fans reach you?

Lalita: At the moment, through Time Warner (twbookmark) or Warner Books.

BW: Ms. Tademy, Thank You so much for taking time out of your busy book tour to answer my questions.

Lalita: It was my pleasure.

More about Lalita Tademy and Cane River on the Web

Her own Web Page
First Chapter of Cane River
Her Book Photo Gallery
Warner Press Release
Author Bio
Original Author Article at Warner
The Early Show Interview
BlackTexas.Com Review


Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Reviewed by Brenda Weeaks
Warner Books - April 17, 2001
ISBN: 0446527327 - Hardcover
432 pages - $24.95 US
Buy a Copy
Cane River is a title that alludes to the old southern charm - romanticism even - of the old southern rivers, the days of the plantations, rich lives, and extravagant garden parties. There is nothing charming or romantic about the lives shared with us in this story. Lalita Tademy has written a compelling story, part fact and part fiction, about her family roots. It begins at Cane River, Louisiana, in 1834 with Suzette, who also fills us in on her mother’s life as a slave in Virginia years before that. The readers are taken through Suzette’s life, thorough her daughter Philomene’s life, then through Philomene’s daughter, Emily’s life, where the story ends, but not the dreams of four strong French-speaking slaves.

Slaves Elisabeth and Gerasime have four children; Suzette is one. The opening chapter falls upon Suzette, as she is getting back at Madame Derbanne for slapping her; already the sign of what’s to come. In present day, Derbanne is a well-known name in the south. The author’s family, with the exception of Elizabeth, began on Derbanne’s Creole plantation. Suzette hopes to wed a free black man, but learns the free do not wed slaves and fate has an unwilling course ahead for her. Her brief glimpse of freedom is just the beginning for this family with no last name.  Suzette falls victim to a French man and gives birth to Philomene. Philomene is enamored with freedom and blessed with visions. Philomene lives two lives and gives birth to Emily who experiences more freedom than the rest, but it eludes her in a new way.

Readers can expect to relive the dramatic southern era of slaves, civil war, slave freedom, sharecropping, the KKK, and more in Cane River.  Cane River is one of the most vivid, honest, haunting reads I have experienced in a long while; it’s not one I shall soon forget.


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