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Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills

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Ariadne
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Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Post by Ariadne » Fri September 26th, 2008, 6:50 pm

ISLE OF CANES
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Ancestry Publishing, 2004, $24.95, hb, 583pp, 1593311753

I’ve never read a novel quite like this. Written by an eminent genealogist and meticulously documented, it could have been a textbook case of good history but bad fiction. The introductory matter, including eight pages of family trees, made me hesitate even more. Would I ever get to know all these people? I need not have worried. Mills is a natural storyteller, and her novel is a masterpiece. Long and involved but never boring, it’s an example of what all historical novels should be.

It begins with François, an Ewe carpenter brought to Louisiana on a slaver’s ship in 1735. His bride is Fanny, daughter of an African king, a proud woman who slowly accepts her fate. Their daughter Marie-Thérèse, known as Coincoin, lives in slavery for decades before becoming the mistress of Pierre Metoyer, a Frenchman who first buys her, then frees her. Coincoin’s first act is to purchase, then free, her own half-Negro daughter, a practice her family continues. Augustin, Coincoin’s son, becomes patriarch to a large family and achieves the southern antebellum version of the American dream. Respected, powerful, and immensely wealthy, Augustin owns more acres – and more slaves – than most whites could ever envision. (Readers may remember him from Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, which was based partly on Mills’ own research.) Augustin’s daughter-in-law Perine, a strong woman built in Coincoin’s image, keeps his memory alive during hard times.

The action unfolds dramatically against 150 years of Louisiana’s history, as the Spanish and French struggle with each other, and with the intrusive Anglos, for control. Over time, the Metoyers’ fortunes rise and fall, but never as low as during the Civil War – which loses them more freedom than it gains. The Metoyers, a historical family both black and white and yet neither, challenge all perceptions of racial boundaries. You may never look at American history the same way again.

(Review first published in the Historical Novels Review in August 2004. It's since been released in paperback at $19.95, and is discounted to $13-something at Amazon. All of the main characters are based on historical people.)

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diamondlil
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Post by diamondlil » Sat September 27th, 2008, 12:14 am

This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the review!
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Divia
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Post by Divia » Sat September 27th, 2008, 2:22 am

Yeah this does sound interesting. Its on the TBR pile.
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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Sat September 27th, 2008, 2:31 am

Hope you like it if you end up getting a copy.

There's an article about the main character, Marie-Thérèse Coincoin, at the Washington Post's website (written before Isle of Canes was published). Fascinating story.

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