Family histories can provide fabulous stories, even those where ancestors are not famous. It is often the simple stories of simple folk that highlight the true hardships and struggles to endure and make their successes, however minor, seem phenomenally marvelous. In-depth looks at hardship life illustrate two things: not everyone has it so easy in life, and you probably don't have it as hard. James Agee did it masterfully in his book LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN. Now, Lalita Tademy follows up the success of her debut CANE RIVER with a book, if one can imagine, that is even better.
RED RIVER is the continuing story of the Tademy family and their road from slave life to freedom. It is narrated by Polly, Tademy's great-great-grandmother, and within the first few pages you instantly begin to understand the depth of investigative work that Tademy had to undertake in order to bring this story to the world.
Beginning in the small Louisiana town of Colfax, there is still trouble and hatred between white and black. The Civil War is nearly 10 years gone, and the freedoms afforded the freed slaves is not sitting well with white politicians and residents. On April 13, 1873, Colfax would be rocked by a riot that was really more a massacre, as white militia opened fire on them at the courthouse. Present in that scene were Israel Smith and Sam Tademy. Following the brutal murders of over 100 black men, the repercussions of the long-forgotten riot ripple through the south and threaten the very freedoms afforded the freedmen.
From 1873 to 1937, RED RIVER outlines the survival of the Tademy and Smith families, of Sam's creation of colored schools in Colfax, of the horror of living in Reconstruction-era southern America and the threat of death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. All of this and yet the Tademy family refused to ever give in, seeking instead to push forward and work together to build a legacy.
Forget that RED RIVER is an amalgam of historical record and fiction. One has to realize the difficulty in setting the family story down, and in creating discussions and thoughts for these "characters," it must invariably be tagged as fiction. The fiction aspects succeed, however, because Tademy keeps the very spirit of the time and, no doubt, the desires of those she is reporting on, true to what one would expect. She has deftly combined fact and fiction and produced a powerful and inspiring literary work.
In her note in the endpages, Tademy says she wanted to honor those who survived those days and that even after her research she cannot fully comprehend what they went through. There is no doubt that, should they ever have been able to open these pages and see how she has set down their story with great care and honesty and love, they never would have been so proud.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on January 23, 2011