“Citizens Creek” by Lalita Tademy. Atria Books, 2014. $26.
Lalita Tademy has built her résumé by constructing period novels told in contemporary voices. In “Cane River,” Tademy delved into the French/black Creole fusion that produced a unique culture in the 1700s in central Louisiana.“Red River” was a sequel of sorts, but the story moved south along the Red River during Reconstruction.
In this new novel, Tademy examines an oft-forgotten fact of Southern history: Many people of color were held in bondage by Native American tribes before the Civil War.
The story begins in 1822 in Alabama, where Tom — “Cow Tom” — is a slave belonging to Creek Chief Yargee.
Cow Tom was trained in animal husbandry by another slave, Old Turtle, a hilis haya — Creek for “healer.” Old Turtle is Tom’s only family since his mother was carried off by Seminole raiders.
Both Tom and Old Turtle self-identify as Creek, even though they are black. They have absorbed the ways of the tribe. Tom is a skilled linguist, fluent in English, Creek, some Cherokee and some Choctaw. He hopes one day to buy his freedom from Chief Yargee, accruing credit through his skills at cattle trading. He also dreams of finding his kidnapped mother.
Tom works with the cattle and builds a life among the Creek, marrying the beautiful Amy and starting a family. Then war comes.
Tom’s language skills get him tapped to aid the white men making war on the Seminoles in Florida. He is loaned out to the Army by his master.
While he is there, he witnesses great brutality and commits an act that haunts him the rest of his life. He also finds a woman he believes is his lost mother. He manages to get her onto a boat with him for removal to the new Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.
Tademy is not a literary writer who leaves you pondering the beauty of her style. She is, rather, a solid storyteller who can create believable characters and gift them with appropriate emotions as she moves them through the plot.
Tracking Cow Tom’s family through their removal to Indian Territory and illustrating the privations and threats of that journey, she follows him through his triumph in gaining his freedom, owning a farm and building a family.
Cow Tom’s family grows, and the second part of the book is told in the voice of Cow Tom’s granddaughter, Rose, who lives through the Civil War and sees statehood, Sooners and ranching success in the early 20th century.
Tademy is more at ease writing in Rose’s voice, and this section of the book runs smoothly toward its conclusion as Rose deals with her own low expectations for herself, her surprise suitor, the emotional stress of a difficult marriage and motherhood to many children.
Family is the overriding theme in this book. It is family that gets Cow Tom and Rose through hard times. It is family that sustains their success and motivates them. It is family that gives life perspective.
“Citizens Creek” is unique in telling the black Indians’ story in their own voices. It is based on a true story, but like any good tale, it doesn’t cleave to the facts so tightly as to render the telling dry and crusty.
This is historical fiction flexing its muscles, telling the story complete with the emotions and motivations of the people who lived it and made it. It’ll set you to thinking and entertain you at the same time.