"A masterpiece. You may never look at American history the same way again" -- Historical Novels Review
"Mills is a master story teller, bringing to vivid life untold pieces of our countrys hsitory." -- Lalita Tademy, author of New York Time Best Seller Cane River, an Oprah's Book Club Selection
From the Publisher
A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills about her new book Isle of Canes: Q: What is this book about? MILLS: Isle of Canes is a story of multiracial America and its historic struggle to make a place for itself in a world that has insisted one must be either black or white. It is a story of personal conflict between a slaves hunger for freedom and the freedmans struggle for survival in a slave regime. Its a story of the cultural clash between the Latin and Anglo South over the issues of race and civil rights for those who were free but not white. Its a story of sexual and emotional dynamics that transcend race. Above all, it is the story of family, and how pride in ones roots can sustain generations of people through all adversities. Q: What role did genealogy play in the creation of this novel? MILLS: Truly, it provided the bones, flesh, heart, mind, and soul for all the Islanders whose story it tells. Genealogy is history up close and personal. When we personalize history, we make it real. Studying the individual lives of people, as Ive done with the Islanders for the past thirty-five years, gives us a much clearer window through which to see the world. It shows us, starkly, the human costs of decisions made by politicians and generals, and it leaves us with a much truer understanding of why our society is the way it is. Q: What compelled you to write this book? MILLS: Ah, what writer can resist when a story cries to be told! The life that existed for Louisianas Creoles of color is a chapter of Americas past that few people have seen or heard. In part, it has been simply neglected amid our countrys traditional emphasis on Anglo-Protestant roots. In part, it has been purposefully ignored because it raises issues we, as a nation, are uncomfortable with. On matters of slavery and race, we favor stereotypeswe grasp for black and white answersbecause those are easier to deal with than shades of gray. But the life that once existed on Cane Rivers Isle goes way beyond the gray-scale. The Islanders story paints the complexities of human life in glorious Technicolor that is both painful and inspiring. Q: How did you discover this story? MILLS: As a young wife and mother, I went to Louisianas Cane River in search of my childrens roots. As my study of the region became known, the local preservation society asked me to conduct a historical-site documentation project. It had been given a plantation home and estate grounds that it hoped to place on the National Register. In the end, the story that emerged was so fantastic the site was declared a National Historic Landmark. In peeling away layers of lore and controversy, we discovered that the home, known as Melrose, was only one of a dozen or more mansion houses that once graced the Isle and that the land on which Melrose stood was part of a plantation empire of 18,000 acres founded by a family of freed slaves under the more-tolerant culture of French and Spanish Louisiana. Q: What is the relationship between fact and fiction in your novel? MILLS: Faction is the best word to describe the Isle of Canes. The story is drawn from thousands of documents unearthed in archives from Canada to Cuba to Mexico to France to Spainresearch I personally conducted, individually and together with my late husband, a historian also. Whats more, the sheer size of the familya cast of over a thousand in its first century and a halfoffers a fantastic pool from which to draw the most representative characters in each generation. Yet no amount of records could ever chronicle all the intimate details of an individual life, and a storyteller must color in the blanks left by the written record. Because Ive spent thirty-five years studying not just the Islanders but all the families with whom they lived, loved, labored, and sometimes feuded, I am confident I have painted my backdrops and clothed my characters as faithfully as a storyteller possibly could. Q. What do you hope your readers will take with them after they finish Isle of Canes? MILLS: That everyone deserves a chance to live up to their potential. That people are individuals and no one deserves to have labels forced upon them. That lifes choices have always been far more complicated than we assume from the stereotyped portrayals of history and that the past cannot fairly be measured by modern ideals. Above all, that family is the bedrock upon which all societies are built and that family should beand can bethe haven that nurtures each new generation.