Tademy quit her job, retiring to her art-filled Menlo Park, Calif., home without a clear idea of what to do next. Yet she couldn't get Fredieu out of her mind. Curious about her family's past, she took up genealogy. "It became addictive," she says.
And rewarding. Tademy, 52, once among the highest-ranking African-American women in the tech world, parlayed her hobby into Cane River, a bestselling novel that earned her an impressive $500,000 advance and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey. The tale takes its name from the Louisiana stream along which Tademy's maternal ancestors lived. Spanning a century, it draws on the stories of four generations of mothers and daughters who struggled to keep their families intact, first as slaves, then as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws. "These women got to me," says Tademy.
But it was the mysterious Emily who propelled the search. According to some relatives, Tademy's great-grandmother, who died at age 75 in 1936, was an elegant grande dame. "My mother compared her to Jacqueline Kennedy," says Tademy. Yet Emily lived in an isolated farmhouse, drank homemade wine and looked down on darker-skinned blacks. To learn the history that had shaped those contradictions, Tademy spent three years digging through records at Louisiana courthouses, churches and genealogical societies. The most disturbing document was an 1850 bill of sale for eight family members. "I was furious," says Tademy. "I felt helpless before these crushing social forces." As a way of honoring her ancestors' refusal to be crushed, she decided to tell their stories.
Tademy's own story has its share of pain as well. In the 1940s her parents, Billie Dee, now 79, and Nathan, who died in 1984, tried to escape the racial oppression of Colfax, La., by relocating to Berkeley, Calif. In 1956 Nathan, a contractor, moved his family to nearby Castro Valley, where he bought seven acres and began building homes intended for other blacks. Outraged whites tried to buy him out, then threatened to burn him out. The family remained, but the hostility traumatized Lalita and her three older siblings. When she walked past the home of an old white man on her way to school each morning, he spat on her. "I assumed everybody was out to get us," she says. "I didn't feel I was going to get out alive."
She found solace in her family—and in reading. "Lalita was not a child to get into devilment," says her mother. "All I had to do was buy her a book, and she would sit there." Writing, however, was never Tademy's ambition. In 1966 she left for predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D.C., then transferred to UCLA, where she earned a bachelor's in psychology and statistics and then a master's in business administration in 1972.
In 1992, after working her way up the ranks of the computer industry, Tademy became a top executive at Sun Microsystems. Everyone was stunned when she quit three years later. "It just didn't make sense," says VP John Kannegaard. "I was surprised and a little envious."
Tademy, who is single, spent another three years on Cane River, working seven days a week. Her drive paid off. After 13 agents rejected the book ("Slavery has been done," one told her), she got a yes. But it isn't the money or instant fame that has changed Tademy's already comfortable life; it's the women of her past. "That's what history does," says her sister Joan Lothery, 57. "It helps us be at peace with who we are."
Already at work on a second novel, this one about her paternal ancestors, Tademy is relishing the rewards of her career change. "There were many days when I said, 'Are you crazy? You left your job for this?' " she says, laughing. "Looking back, I'm sure glad I did."
Frances Dinkelspiel in Menlo Park and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles