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In a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, a young black man named Jefferson is an unwilling party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed. The only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Many years later, a young teacher returns to 1940s Cajun country visits Jefferson on death row. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
Set among the plantations in deepest Louisiana, "Cane River" follows the lives of five generations of women from the time of slavery in the early 1800s into the early years of the 20th century. From down-trodden, philosophical Suzette, who was born and died a slave, to educated, pale-skinned Emily, whose high ambitions born in freedom become her downfall, we are introduced to a remarkable cast of characters whose struggles reflect the tragedy of slavery and, ultimately, the triumph of the spirit.
On July 5, 1906, scandal breaks in the small town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, when the proprietor of the general store, E. Rucker Blakeslee, elopes with Miss Love Simpson. He is barely three weeks a widower, and she is only half his age and a Yankee to boot. As their marriage inspires a whirlwind of local gossip, fourteen-year-old Will Tweedy (Rucker's grandson) suddenly finds himself eyewitness to a family scandal, and that's where his adventures begin.
In search of missing family members, Zulu priest Stephen Kumalo leaves his South African village to traverse the deep and perplexing city of Johannesburg in the 1940s. With his sister turned prostitute, his brother turned labor protestor and his son, Absalom, arrested for the murder of a white man, Kumalo must grapple with how to bring his family back from the brink of destruction as the racial tension throughout Johannesburg hampers his attempts to protect his family.
While a dirt farmer named Ty Ty Walden spends 15 years digging holes in his fields looking for gold, his hot-headed sons do less digging and more squabbling over women. Add a lascivious brother-in-law who has been laid off from his job in a mill, another brother from the city who shows up to steal his brother's wife, and a promiscuous sister named Darlin' Jill, and the final blowup is hardly surprising. But there are other less predictable surprises as the story veers toward melodrama. With murder and rape following a killing at the mill, it is as if Caldwell flipped a switch from "farce" to "tragedy."
Fired from his job as political cartoonist for the New York Sun, Pick Cantrell returns, with dread in his heart, to his North Carolina roots to take the barbs of his typically Southern family for being uppity and leaving home in the first place. Chief among his critics is his paternal grandmother, Mama Lucy, whose vitriolic tongue has shaped the lives of her progeny for as long as Pick can remember. Although he falls victim to her indictments, he eventually makes his peace and learns of her colorful past in the bargain.
Rev. David Allen, a preacher in a North Carolina mountain town during the Depression, feels overwhelmed by the poverty of his parishioners. One Christmas, he sells his only valuable possession, a rare heirloom Bible to buy shoes for the children in his church. But by the following Christmas, harsh conditions remain the same, and he despairs that his sacrifice has made no lasting difference. Then a letter arrives to tell him his old Bible has begun a ministry all its own. As the Bible makes its way across the country, seven strangers write to David (whose name and address were written inside the Bible's cover) to explain how its message has transformed them.
Young Jody adopts an orphaned fawn he calls Flag and makes it a part of his family and his best friend. But life in the Florida backwoods is harsh, so his family fights off wolves, bears, and even alligators, and faces failure in their tenuous subsistence farming.
Janie Crawford, an attractive, confident, middle-aged black woman, returns to Eatonville, Florida, after a long absence. The black townspeople gossip about her and -speculate about where she has been and what has happened to her young husband, Tea Cake. They take her confidence as aloofness, but Janie's friend Pheoby Watson sticks up for her. Pheoby visits her to find out what has happened. Their conversation frames the novel.
The year is 1940. After a car accident kills 12-year-old Lou's and 7-year-old Oz's father and leaves their mother Amanda in a catatonic trance, the children find themselves sent from New York City to their great-grandmother Louisa's farm in Virginia. Louisa's hardscrabble existence comes as a profound shock to precocious Lou and her shy brother. Still struggling to absorb their abandonment, they enter gamely into a life that tests them at every turn--and offers unimaginable rewards.