Lalita Tademy is taking up where she left off with her last book, Cane River, a fictional account of her ancestors from slavery to freedom. Like Cane River, Red River follows four generations of her ancestors, but unlike Cane, which is connected by the "bleaching" of the family line by each generation of women giving birth to a white man's baby, Red's story is fractured in the middle.
The novel's initial focus is the Colfax riots of Easter 1873, which included two of Tademy's great-great-grandfathers. At the end of Reconstruction, the African-American men of Colfax, La., tried to hold onto their rightfully elected courthouse while the White League, the precursor of the Ku Klux Klan, planned an attack. The African-American men waited for federal troops that never came and the White League's army attacked the courthouse. But the real brutality happened after the African-Americans laid down their weapons: They were tied up and shot. And Tademy does a good job at reminding readers how close to war race relations came in the South after emancipation.
The Colfax riot is considered one of the dying blows to Reconstruction, and Tademy's research is extensive. She uses historically accurate names for members of both whites and blacks, fictionalizing their dialogue and much of their actions. The buildup to the battle at the courthouse takes Tademy more than 130 pages to reach and another 70 to dramatize. And she does such suspense and action well, reminiscent of Michael Shaara's Gettysburg epic, The Killer Angels, by integrating personal stories into a bigger picture.
But Tademy's courthouse climax comes halfway through the novel, and the next 200 pages can't match the excitement and horror of the first half. After the battle and the execution of the Colfax men, Tademy rushes through three generations of their children, attempting to show how the riots left a shadow on the families. But she moves too quickly and the story has little focus.
While much of the description of Louisiana is lovely, Tademy sometimes changes narrative tone, moving to a more journalistic voice. She also often gets lazy and "tells" instead of "shows" and relies heavily on dialogue to narrate the story, causing characters to speak aloud unnecessary facts, such as when McCully tells another native of Colfax the names and locations of several landmarks. Also, although this is historic fiction, Tademy provides several photos of her ancestors and photocopies of original letters and newspaper articles describing some of the events of the story, leaving you confused as to what should be taken as fact and what as fiction.