I’ve read all of bestselling author Lalita Tademy’s novels and each has had a definite impact on me. They’re the kind of novels that keep me thinking about them for weeks afterward, and that’s always a good thing. Her new novel, Citizens Creek, shines a light on a part of African American history that isn’t talked about a lot – or at least by people I’ve known. I also don’t recall studying it as part of my U.S. history classes, although that probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise. If you’re interested in the American Indian Wars, the Civil War, African American or Native American history – or whether you just like a good read about a family’s struggles to find its place in this country or want to see how one person can make a real difference, then you’ll want to learn more about Citizens Creek.
Cow Tom wasn’t always known as Cow Tom. He was born as just plain Tom to a slave in Alabama in 1810. When he was still a small boy, he saw his mother carried off screaming by two Seminole Indians during a raid. He made a vow to himself that he would find his mother somehow. When he was ten years old, Tom was sold to Creek Indian chief Yargee. Unfortunately the chief had another slave named Tom so it was never clear which Tom he was calling for. When it became too confusing he named the Tom who took care of the horses “Horse Tom” and the Tom who took care of the cows “Cow Tom.” That ended the confusion over which was needed when called, much to the two boys’ dismay.
Luckily Cow Tom had an ear for different languages, a gift that was to save him many times over the years. Cow Tom began early to save any money he got toward buying his freedom from the chief, who had agreed to a set price for that freedom. As he and his language skills grew, Cow Tom became indispensible to the tribe during negotiations and any business dealings with other tribal nations as well as with those who spoke and wrote English. He took pride in getting the best deal possible. Although he was considered a slave, he was also considered a tribal member and well treated so he worked hard in the best interests of the tribe.
It seemed like a fortuitous thing when the chief agreed to loan Cow Tom to the U.S. Army to help translate for them near the end of the the southern part of the American Indian Wars: fortuitous to the chief because he gained money and to Cow Tom because he was to receive a percentage of that money toward buying his freedom. The only down side was that Cow Tom was to be separated from his wife, Amy, and his two small daughters at a risky time for the tribe. All of the Southeastern tribal nations were being rounded up to be moved to what would become known as Indian Territory, because Southern planters wants their land for cotton. Despite the military’s assurances that he would return to the tribe before they were moved, he knew enough about the white man’s word to know he couldn’t count on that.
“’I am loath to leave,’ said Yargee, in Mvskoke.
‘It’s been a good place,’ Cow Tom answered simply.
‘My father, Big Warrior, was principal chief of Upper Creeks here after the Creek War. My brother was killed by whites here. I brought down my first deer in those woods, and married both my wives here. And now they force us to go, like the land belongs to them alone.’
‘You’ll take everyone with you? Negro and Indian?’ Cow Tom tried not to sound too anxious. ‘We can all help rebuild in Indian Territory.’
Chief Yargee seemed surprised by the question. ‘Yes. All will travel together, Creeks, Negroes, and as much stock as they allow. Removal won’t be easy.’
‘But the land has been set aside?’
‘Yes. Some of us have already moved, Lower Creek mostly. I intend to wait until my warriors return from Florida to start the journey.’”
Cow Tom also had a hidden agenda in accepting the translator role – finding his mother. He and another slave translator were headed into Florida to help negotiate a peace settlement with and round up the tribes there. Cow Tom knew the odds were good that he’d come across the Seminole tribe who stole his mother. If she was still alive, he meant to get her back one way or another even if it meant using all the funds he had saved for his own freedom.
“…Tom found the twinkle of the star that never moved in the northern sky to accept his nightly prayer. He conjured up his most precious memory. His mother, her callused hands so warm at the nape of his neck, humming some nameless, soothing tune…’Come boy,’ she said then. ‘My Tom. Be well. You’re meant for special things. Be well now.’
He missed her.
His star called to him. First, he wished his mother safe. He wished she would come back. He wished for guidance on how to be special…”
Can he find his mother and, if so, get her away from the tribe who captured her? Will he be reunited with his wife, his daughters, and his tribe before they begin the migration known then as the Indian Removal and later as the Trail of Tears? Will the tribe survive the trip and the virulent fevers that plague them? If so, will their reduced and fragile members survive the harsh conditions they find at journey’s end? How will the African American slaves be treated during that Removal and what role will Cow Tom play in their treatment during and after the journey? Will he ever gain his freedom and, if so, at what cost?
Although I know this is a spoiler, I need to disclose that Citizens Creek is a multi-generational novel. It is written from two perspectives: that of Cow Tom and that of Rose, his feisty granddaughter. As a young girl, she worshiped her grandfather and wanted to be like him more than anything. She became his shadow to learn as much as she could from him. Rose later emerges as the family leader who will carry forward his legacy during and after the Civil War. She musters the courage that he taught her to try to deal with the hardships the family encounters after the Civil War as individuals, as Creek tribal members, and as African Americans. Can she do it or will everything Cow Tom worked so hard for be lost?
Citizens Creek is filled with interesting characters, some wonderful and some despicable, and I hate that I’ve only been able to tell you about two in this review. Cow Tom not only is courageous and loyal but he shows a depth of honor that makes him an exceptional man no matter how you look at it. That’s not to say he’s perfect by any means, and yet he has a strong conviction that guides him even during the toughest times. He has to make incredibly hard decisions – life and death decisions at times – but he never loses sight of what’s right. I’m not going to talk about the other characters in the novel because this novel is driven by Cow Tom and Ruth, and I don’t want to provide any more spoilers about Ruth.
Lalita Tademy’s inspiration for this novel came from the African American towns that sprang up in Oklahoma right after the Civil War, a black Creek chief, and a friend’s family history with roots in Oklahoma…a family that included Rose and Cow Tom. Yes, this is a novel based on real people and real events.
Thanks to Halloween month, I had been reading a lot of thrillers when I picked up Citizens Creek. I had to make a mental adjustment because historical novels don’t traditionally move at that thriller slam-bam pace. That said, the pace clips along really nicely in this character-driven novel – just fast enough without rushing through the unfolding events. We really get to know Cow Tom, his family, and his adopted tribal nation. Through their interactions, we get to see the Creeks’ perception of other tribal nations as well, which is always interesting.
Most of us know a general version of what happened during the Trail of Tears. Most of what I know about it is about how it affected the Cherokees in North Carolina. Citizens Creek paints a very up close and personal view of what happened to the Creek nation, and what became of the African Americans among them – a group the U.S. military hadn’t really taken into consideration apparently. It’s an eye-opening read, and you know I love those! If you like historical novels, I recommend Citizens Creek as well as Lalita Tademy’s other novels.
Can’t wait to read it?
Citizens Creek was published on November 4, 2014, so it’s available now from your favorite online bookseller. Just click the button/link below (or in the right column for iBooks) and you can read all about Cow Tom and his family!
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