Title: Citizens Creek
Author: Lalita Tademy
No. of Pages: 432
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Atria Publishing
Release Date: 4 November 2014
Bottom Line: Fascinating piece of history
“Cow Tom, born into slavery in Alabama in 1810 and sold to a Creek Indian chief before his tenth birthday, possessed an extraordinary gift: the ability to master languages. As the new country developed westward, and Indians, settlers, and blacks came into constant contact, Cow Tom became a key translator for his Creek master and was hired out to US military generals. His talent earned him money—but would it also grant him freedom? And what would become of him and his family in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Indian Removal westward?
Cow Tom’s legacy lives on—especially in the courageous spirit of his granddaughter Rose. She rises to leadership of the family as they struggle against political and societal hostility intent on keeping blacks and Indians oppressed. But through it all, her grandfather’s indelible mark of courage inspires her—in mind, in spirit, and in a family legacy that never dies.
Written in two parts portraying the parallel lives of Cow Tom and Rose, Citizens Creek is a beautifully rendered novel that takes the reader deep into a little known chapter of American history. It is a breathtaking tale of identity, community, family—and above all, the power of an individual’s will to make a difference.”
Thoughts: American history classes around the country discuss slavery. They also discuss the forced move of Native Americans westward. However, the fact that Indians owned slaves is not something most Americans will ever learn or know. Lalita Tademy’s newest novel, Citizens Creek, seeks to remedy this historical omission by telling the fascinating story of the first African Indian chief, which it does with a reverence much deserved towards its subject.
The story begins with Cow Tom earning his name during his childhood in Alabama and ends around the turn of the century in Oklahoma with his granddaughter’s fight to keep the family land and freedom for which he fought his entire life. Crossing the generations are the westward march of the Indians, the Civil War, and westward expansion. Throughout all of the changes, Cow Tom and his family must fight for their rights as members of the Creek Nation in spite of their slavery and, upon their freedom, their skin color.
In many ways, Citizens Creek shares several attributes of Gone With the Wind, as ironic as that is. For one, Cow Tow and his granddaughter are all about their land. For them, it is the most precious commodity they own, outside of their freedom, and Rose fights tooth and nail to keep her family’s land whole. Readers cannot help but harken back to Gerald O’Hara’s lessons to Scarlett about land being the only thing for which it is worth fighting. Rose too shares similarities to Scarlett. She is absolutely ruthless about keeping what she feels is rightfully hers, stubborn in her righteousness, and proud of her family’s legacy. It is easy for readers to imagine Rose in Scarlett’s situation and vice versa, knowing that they would both use their fierce independence and guile to win any battle they face. There are many character overlaps like that, where one of Cow Tom’s family will remind readers of one of Scarlett’s family. The scope of them both are similar too, crossing the years before, during, and after the Civil War. It all makes for an intriguing exercise in comparative literature.
Citizens Creek is an impressive novel. Its scope is quite large and challenging. The cast of characters is diverse. Most importantly, its subject matter involves a relatively unknown but intriguing element of American history. Unfortunately, the story does not flow quite as seamlessly as one would wish. The chapter breaks are abrupt, better suited for suspense rather than a historical narrative. The jumps in time are obscure and difficult to follow. In addition, there are certain aspects of Cow Tom’s backstory that never get an explanation but are referenced as if readers know everything about Cow Tom’s past. These niggling issues prevent one from unabashedly loving the novel but not from enjoying the story overall.