Books: David Mittell reviews Citizens Creak, by Lalita Tademy, a story about a slave and the Creek Indians.

Citizens Creak, By Lalita Tademy (Atria Books, 418 pp.)

review written By David A. Mittell, Jr.

As a reader of history I usually eschew historical fiction by authors whose surname isn’t Shakespeare or Twain. However clever, Gore Vidal’s words put onto the lips of Thomas Jefferson (in Burr, 1972), or Hilary Mantel’s onto Thomas Cromwell’s (in Wolf Hall, 2009), are unhistorical and subject to the writer’s historical revisionism. As Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am!”

Perhaps. But author Lalita Tademy holds a mirror to my narrowness. Citizens Creek is her third historical novel. All of them are captivating. Her first book, Cane River (2001), dealt with generations of partly black, partly French antecedents of the author’s mother in Louisiana. Frenchmen, we learned, continued to migrate to francophone Louisiana throughout the 19th century – long after the Civil War and very long after the Louisiana Purchase ended French sovereignty in 1803.

Cane River made the New York Times best-seller list and was an Oprah’s Book Club Summer Selection. Red River (2006), which chronicled her father’s Tademy antecedents, was also a best-seller.

Citizens Creek is the story of an unrelated but real family. It begins with “Cow Tom,” a black slave born in 1810 and sold to the Creek Indians at age nine. Tom learns the Creek language and subsequently ingratiates himself with the U.S. Army by serving as a translator during one of the Seminole wars in Florida. (The three Seminole wars cost the United States more money and soldiers’ lives than any other Indian war.)

Tom searches forlornly for the mother who had abandoned him. He is witness to war and evil – sometimes participating in both. He is part of the forced removal of the Creek and their slaves to Oklahoma in 1837 and 1838. Eventually he rises to be a Creek chief. This is historical fact.

It is in the artistry of the dialogue she creates that Ms. Tademy is wise. She understands that cultural customs bleed across social and racial lines. Cow Tom is rigidly patrilineal: He has daughters but craves a male heir. He loves his firstborn granddaughter, Rose, but will not recognize this female child as his true inheritor.

The second part of Citizens Creek the story of Rose. Her twin brother has not survived childbirth. Because of that she, too, is rejected by her mother, though not abandoned. Poverty continually threatens her own children’s survival. She holds the family together with courage and compromises. Her endurance, like her grandfather’s, is beyond imagining.

Rose becomes an activist for the rights of Indians, red and black. (In the 1970s, the red of some tribes tried to disfranchise the black; this intensified with the coming of Indian casinos.) As she gets older Rose understands that her resentments have hardened her, and this has divided her family. As aging people need to, she tries to let go of her demons.

Lalita Tademy’s books are readable and thoroughly researched. The reader never confuses one character with another; and the author knows too much of this world to divide it into “good guys and bad guys.”

I remain struck by a character in Cane River. Joseph Billes Jr. was the son of a French immigrant and a black Louisiana woman his father loved but never married. Joseph Jr. died in France in World War I as member of the U.S. Army – fighting for parental homelands neither of which did much for him during his life. That is not fiction. It might be the author’s fourth novel.

More to the point, Lalita Tademy’s fictive dialogue involving real people whose lives she deeply understands fills an empty space in American literature. In the 1970s — after the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965 had proven effective — author William Manchester wrote: “The voice of the American Negro was still unheard. The word Southerner meant white Southerner.”

Ms. Tademy’s novels are a vital refutation of that. The Last of The Mohicans (1826) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) shall not comprise the “book” on nonwhite American lives in the 21st century.

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