“This is not a story to go down easy, and the backwash still got hold of us today. The history of a family. The history of a country… Wasn’t no riot like they say… it was a massacre.” In 1873, five years after the Louisiana Constitution grants citizen rights to former slaves, the black men of Grant Parish risk their lives to vote, electing a Republican sheriff. When the Democratic incumbent refuses to step down, a group of black militiamen blockade the courthouse. Expecting the U.S. government to uphold the election results, the militants wait for federal reinforcements, but weeks pass and no relief appears. The white attackers finally break the impasse by setting fire to the courthouse; and a massacre ensues that includes the slaughter of four dozen unarmed blacks. Sam Tademy and Isaiah Smith (the author’s great-great-grandfathers) are two of the few survivors of the “Colfax Riot.”
With a deft hand, Lalita Tademy intertwines historical events with her own ancestral story to create a novel about two families struggling to build a better world for the generations that follow. Her varied characters are unforgettable, her forthright descriptions are vivid (“The precarious relationship… crumples like a wobbly wagon wheel that finally capsizes the cart”) and her unusual use of the present tense provides immediacy while propelling the story forward.
It is accomplishment enough to write a novel that so poignantly exposes the indignities endured by one group of people during one small period of history, but the author’s stunning achievement is to tell a story that, despite its specificity of time, place, and race, universalizes both the suffering and the sacrifice. More than a family saga, Red River is a clear glass that illuminates the misery of injustice and the magnificence of sacrifice, wherever they are found. Bravo!
418 (US), 416 (UK)