An accomplished first novel weaves fragments of real-life family lore into a vivid tale of four generations of African-American women struggling to hold their families together, first as slaves, then as freed people subject to Jim Crow laws and white vigilantism.
The story opens in 1834, on a plantation on the Cane River in Louisiana, as Suzette turns nine. She's a house slave who often works in the kitchen with her mother Elisabeth, the cook and family matriarch whose love and wisdom will sustain them all in the years ahead. Though born in Virginia, where she had two sons by her white master, Elisabeth had to leave them when she was sold to the present French family, the Derbannes. It's a time when color divides both blacks and whites. Light-skinned freed slaves despise their darker enslaved kin, and white plantation owners sell their children by slave women when they need money. Elisabeth has high hopes for Suzette until her daughter is raped by visiting Eugene Daurat and bears him two children, Gerant and Philomene. As the plantation fails and the family scatters, the story turns to Philomene, who recalls how she became the mistress of white planter Narcisse Fredieu, a man who adores their beautiful daughter Emily. But although Narcisse gives Philomene land when slavery ends, prejudice and custom still prevail, as Emily learns when she falls in love with Frenchman Joseph Billes. Joseph, a rich farmer who marries a white woman when the locals threaten to ostracize him, tries to provide for Emily and their children—until a theft and murder intervene.
Tademy's people are distinctive personalities, enough so to compensate for the slackening of narrative energy as the story moves into the 1930s. The result is a richly textured family saga that resonates with intelligence and empathy.