The title refers to a people rather than a place, just one of the many aspects of the novel that will make you think. It spans almost a century in the lives of Cow Tom and his granddaughter Rose, from his youth as a slave and hilis haya (healer) of cattle on an Upper Creek chief’s Alabama plantation through her later years as an Oklahoma rancher and family matriarch.
Their struggles and rise to prominence make for a classic American success story, and it’s especially inspiring because the characters are based on historical people. They deserve to be more widely known, and Tademy has done well in resurrecting them in her latest work of fiction.
In 1822, when he’s twelve years old, Cow Tom’s mentor, Old Turtle, tells him: “Owned by tribe’s not the same as tribe.” One of Cow Tom’s lifelong goals is to secure freedom and tribal citizenship for all people of African descent living within the Creek Nation. He has a talent for languages, which puts him in demand as a translator during the whites’ Indian wars and their harsh Removal policy, in which tribes living east of the Mississippi were displaced to lands in the West.
Cow Tom also remains determined to find his mother, who was stolen away by Seminoles when he was a child, and uses every possible opportunity on his assignments in Florida to locate her. His achievements on behalf of other African Creeks are impressive (I won’t spoil the details for those who don’t know them), but he also does some things he’s ashamed of. For Rose, being chosen years later as the recipient and bearer of his personal history is equally an honor and a burden.
This is the type of novel that’s best read slowly and carefully. Sometimes one chapter will follow closely upon another, while at other times they’re set years apart. The author’s admirable aim of covering such a wide stretch of years gives the book an episodic feel in places. There are so many people in it with interesting stories and backstories, though. Cow Tom’s wife Amy, for instance, is a smart, tough woman who could easily have starred in a novel herself.
In turning up slices of history unknown to most readers, Tademy has written a stirring work about endurance, liberty, family, and belonging. Cow Tom’s own words to Rose in the novel describe his journey best:
“From early, I had to aim higher than my name, an offhand thing tossed out to make it easier for someone to call me. The name fit, far as it went, but I was more than a tender of cows. I was a tender of words, and of people, and master of myself.”
Citizens Creek was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in November ($26.00, hardcover, 432pp). Thanks to the publisher for granting me access via Edelweiss.