Lalita Tademy

"Red River "

(Reviewed by Ann Wilkes JUN 26, 2007)

Red River chronicles the struggle of the Tademys and the Smiths through three generations beginning with the fight to hold the courthouse for the new Republican sheriff they elected.  In 1873 in Grant Parish, Louisiana, equality remained a wispy dream, an elusive idea that many whites wanted to snuff out.

Read reviewIsrael Smith and Sam Tademy, Jr. leave their families in the Bottom to help hold the courthouse in Colfax against the Democrats and the White League until federal help from New Orleans arrives. Their faith in the government's promises is painful as it tears them between concern for the generations to come and their families left vulnerable by their absence.

"If the governor of Louisiana on our side, why it taking this long to get troops here? I keep thinking he don't care if a fight break out in Colfax. What if he want everybody to see how bad it got here between white and colored, between Republican and Democrat? What if he want to stir up the fight, so's to get more votes next election?"

You talk nonsense, Sam. Not even a politician got a heart that cold. They Republican, and they owe us."

After the long tense weeks of waiting, the women and children joined their men at the courthouse for an Easter service and feast. The whites descend before the Easter feast is cold. The bloodbath that follows, what has come to be known as the "Colfax Massacre," knows no bounds. The attackers allow the women and children to leave unharmed; the only mercy offered during the massacre. Sam leads them into the safety of the woods that the whites are afraid to enter.

After the blacks that are still in the courthouse are smoked out, they lock up the survivors who didn't escape to the woods. The whites entrusted with the prisoners, still agitated and drunk, kill the Republican sheriff, then march the black men to a spot near the river in the middle of the night. They torture some and slaughter all.

"…Don't never let them forget what we done here, why we come, why we stay. If one of us get through, all of us lift our head just a little. Promise me you look after my wife. And promise Amy be one of the first in your colored school."

Sam's dream of a colored school seemed like false hope in the beginning but he didn't give it up. Sam's father had sailed to America from the Nile Delta as a free man only to be enslaved upon his arrival. He guarded his surname in his heart and passed it down to his sons, knowing a time would come when they would be free again. Sam presses upon his sons the pride of the family name and their duty to take up his cause and bring Education to the blacks.

The rich descriptions and the colloquial speech help the reader smell the gunpowder, hear the cannon fire and feel the battered fedora that passes down through the family as a symbol of courage.  

The air smells scorched, a sickening blend of burnt flesh and discharged gunpowder, singe hair and smoldering wood...There are dozens of bodies, faces frozen in finality, some with mouths open and eyes shut…Sam fights the rising revulsion and lifts his eye heavenward for an answer. Hanging from the lower branches of the town's Pecan Tree, three limp forms are outlined by the moon, as if their heads are lowered in prayer…Sam throws up twice as he sorts through the carnage, careful to wipe himself clean with a rag from his jacket pocket so as not to profane the dead.

Red River takes us to a time and a place when freedom was a luxury and gives us what must be the truest, rawest account of those days of failed reconstruction even though it's fictionalized. Beginning with so much action and suspense, Red River winds down to a more mundane family history in the end but it shows us how impossible dreams can be realized and how we can change our part of the world with faith, vision and persistence.

Here! Here! for Lalita Tademy doing her part by correcting historic amnesia and honoring the memory of the Tademys, the Smiths and the friends with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder in Louisiana.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Red River at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Lalita TademyLalita Tademy was born in Berkeley, California, far from her parents’ southern roots. Nonetheless, her parents made sure their household maintained a definite non-California edge, including a steady supply of grits, gumbo, cornbread, and collard greens, and a stream of other transplanted southerners eager to share their “back-home” stories.

Tademy worked in the corporate world for twenty years, her last position was as Vice President at Sun Microsystems. When she left, she was obsessed with finding her family roots and through her research, she had accumulated so many powerful stories that she had no choice but to write.

Her first novel Cane River was selected by Oprah Winfrey in 2001 for a summer book.

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