Friday, June 24, 2016

Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family


I've been thinking about this book Roots: The Saga of an American Family for over a week now because I have a different opinion than so many other readers have. I checked on and this is a very beloved book to so many and I'm going to have to write my honest thoughts about the book. 

I have also been doing research on people and places and events mentioned in the book so as to better understand setting and circumstance. I highly recommend doing this anytime one reads a book set someplace in reality. In fact, I'll never forget how much I was able to look up while reading James Michener's The Covenant, set across several centuries in South Africa...SO MUCH available online to learn more. I loved that I was able to see pictures of characters and places from the book...I adored reading that book.

Chicken George
With the Roots story I wasn't able to find as much as I would have liked, yet Pinterest did have an amazing picture of the man who was the real Chicken George, Kunte Kinte's son. 

Although plagiarism has been confirmed by this author over time, the book's story still stands as a testament to the horror, to the shameful torture and enslavement of so many millions of Africans. The problem with this plagiarism is that the portion of the book plagiarized from Harold Courlander's The African was the first third of the book, the best part of the book, in my opinion. 

Alex Haley claimed that the stories in this book are actual stories uncovered while doing genealogical work on his own family and that the characters, therefore, are based on real people in his ancestry. The plagiarism taints the entire book in my opinion because the reader can't know which parts of the book are complete fiction and which parts are supposed to be genuine familial roots, stories told from generation to generation. Nonetheless, I loved Kunte Kinte and his wonderful family as I read the book.

One possible reason for Alex Haley's plagiarism may have been something like this. The nearly fourteen million people who were stolen from their homeland and home, from their tribes, from their languages, from their belief systems, from their names and histories, and from their families and brought to the North American shores left massive massive gaps in Haley's family history, in the family history of all Africans seeking their roots. Given the estimation that just under half of all people forced into the horrific Transatlantic crossing died on the journey, that means that an estimated twenty-five million people were stolen from their people, a people who had to move forward without these indispensable people. 

In September 1981, the City of Annapolis
unveiled a plaque honoring
Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley.
I can honestly say that the pages of the book telling of the Transatlantic voyage were some of the most harrowing pages I have ever read. When I picked up the book to read I knew that I was going to have to read about the journey but I had no idea how that telling would effect me. My entire week has been lived in the hold of that filthy, seething, hellish person-stealer's ship.

As for the remainder of the book, I have to submit that Alex Haley is not a a very good writer. I'm sorry to say it, but there you are. If we look at this book as historical fiction, which it is, we must acknowledge that the writing is simply not good. 

Furthermore, I found so many characters incredibly unlikable that I didn't really care what happened to them in the trajectory of the story, namely Kunte Kinte as a slave did not hold my attention. Yes, you read that right, the Gambian Kunte Kinte from the Juffure village and the Mandinka tribe that I loved for hundreds of pages simply became two dimensional to me, as did most of the other characters that followed. I loved and cared for Kizzy, yet even this character wasn't well-drawn.

I'm not saying that Kunte's longing for escape and freedom doesn't move me, it does. His life and experiences and longings are heartbreaking. I'm saying that Haley's telling of the tale is simply not compelling. I wanted to love it. 

HOWEVER, I also watched the 70s miniseries this month and I was mesmerized for the entirety of it.

I can't give a sky full of stars to this book I'm afraid so I'll go with five stars out of ten...knowing that I am in the minority.
Maybe I'll revisit this one again in a few years.

Friday, June 17, 2016


The new Roots miniseries came out last month, May of 2016. In 1977, when the original miniseries came out, I was in middle school and I was far more interested in going to the skating rink than in staying home and watching the groundbreaking miniseries starring LeVar Burton, John Amos, Robert Reed, Cicely Tyson, Ed Asner, the amazing Madge Sinclair, the stellar Louis Gossett, Jr., the gorgeous Thalmus Rasulala, and so many more high-caliber stars of the time. NO, I wanted to roller skate with a cute boy at couples only skate; so I missed it when Roots was on the TV in our home each night.

I do remember my parents talking about it quite a bit but I myself didn't see it. This week I have been watching this 1977 mini series. The first episode was so moving. If I didn't love LeVar Burton before, I certainly do now. His earnest and innocent face just got to me so many times. I have to admit to my favorite moment being when Kunte Kinte is being chased by OJ Simpson who looks like a blur across the screen.

With the new miniseries released in May of this year and featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Kalachi Kirby, Matthew Goode, Babs Olusonmokun, and many more, I decided it was past time for me to read the book by Alex Haley. I had alot to catch up on.


Levar Burton
as Kunta Kinte

By now it is fairly well-known that Alex Haley admitted to plagiarizing parts of the story from an author named Harold Courlander. Courlander's novel The African tells a story of a young black boy who was living in Gambia, who was captured by slave traders, who was able to survive the absolute terrors of a trans Atlantic slave ship, and who maintained a strong allegiance to his home village of the Mandinka throughout his life. This storyline is the exact trajectory of Kunta Kinte, the main character in the first generation of the Haley Roots saga.

Additionally, some researchers have done research attempting to recreate or support Haley's claims from so many generations ago, but specific tribes and individuals were not able to be verified. Additionally, much of the slave time period in Virginia and South Carolina in the 1700s and 1800s are not possible to confirm.

Can a novel of historical fiction not be worthy?
I say that it is.

Alex Haley unwisely made claims that he could not support, but had he offered this story as an historical fiction novel, authentic details and credible claims might have elevated the story from novel to historical genealogy, rather than the other way around.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley

Rather than give some sort of synopsis, which you can find in a dozen places on the internet, this writing will focus on my own experience with the reading. I've only read the first few pages so far. I do find the story reads like historical fiction so I have no idea why anyone is surprised. The idealized setting of Gambia reads like a child's garden with a looming threat just outside of the borders. And, indeed, it surely would feel that way to a young man growing up within its borders.

I'm traveling quite a bit this weekend with alot of time for reading...more later.

Alex Haley also wrote a book about his grandmother called Queenie.
Has anyone read it? It's on my list.

The real Chicken George

Monday, June 13, 2016

James Fenimore Cooper


If you thought this was going to be about Last of the Mohicans or The Deerslayer, or The Leatherstocking Tales you are wrong. I read Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief. The story is truly an autobiography about a pocket handerchief.  :)

According to the very interesting forward notes by the secretary of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, who transcribed this work for Gutenberg, this was Cooper's first serious attempt at magazine writing. The editors at Graham's magazine must have gotten a good number of positive reviews of the novelette because they happily published other Cooper works over the years as well, including a novel that stretched out for two years! 

Set in Paris in the 1830s, this story is told from the point of view of fibers woven into a handkerchief, surprise! But those fibers have fiber memory and fiber empathy and can tell us about progenitor stories as well as stories about the person holding the fabric made from the fibers. I couldn't say that everyone would love the idea of this story told by an inanimate object, but I do. I so enjoyed hearing the fiberous memories from the growing field. I also enjoyed reading about where the seeds came from, how they were sprouted... Kept me interested when I thought it wouldn't.

During the hanky's early years in the growing field, an astronomer would bring students out to the growing field to look at the stars and to discuss the Parisian knowledge of the solar system and of the stars in 1830. I was delighted with the tales being told, as were the fibers. In fact, the handkerchief, now woven into the finest linen, fondly recalled their astronomical education from the growing fields for much of their lives and they, actually she, felt that this knowledge made her more worldly and cultured than most fabrics.

We follow the handkerchief through the July Revolution, a political revolt that further reduced the wealthier Parisians in station. Through our hankychif we experience a society with an elegant upper crust that falls apart and that loses value of their precious and sophisticated articles and notions, namely handkerchiefs, apparently. No more is a lovely linen handkerchief highly-prized or appreciated, rather such an article is derided as a throwback to the unfairly-wealthy aristocracy. But some people still appreciate the finer things.

It's almost like les Miserable for hankies.

James Fenimore Cooper, 1820s
Our handkerchief has a fondness for a former fine lady, the lovely  Adrienne de la Rocheaimard. Adrienne, of a formerly noble family that has now fallen into extreme poverty, creates a beautiful work of needlework, embroidered art on the hanky over the months that the handkerchief is in her possession. We share in the hanky's affection for this young woman who is trying to stay afloat in the underbelly of Parisian society by creating an exquisite piece of needlework to sell for high dollar, er, sou.

Eventually our handkerchief finds her way to America where all of the fabrics she has contact with reflect the ethos of America at the time, while our narrator maintains her high society noble Paris ethic. Our narrator finds the nouveau riche of New York incredibly gauche, which is interesting to me because we all know of the excessive wealth of the French aristocracy, including their freaky proclivities, possible only because of the generations of money behind it. Perhaps it is the observation that the accumulation of wealth, generations back in French society, looks like a gaudy social climber from this angle.

 Read this story and absorb the observations of America of the 1840s, its customs, mannerisms, social constructs, defects through the handkerchief's interaction with American fabrics.

I enjoyed it tremendously. The subtle humor and satire, the history and culture, I give it a strong six stars.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr


How to put words to this book. 
I feel destroyed by this book.
As I read I wanted to read backwards to keep the book going on and on, knowing that if I read forwards I would finish it.

We are introduced to kind-hearted, genius boy Werner and his sister in the orphanage where they live in Germany in the early 1940s and we watch as childhood Reich brainwashing gathers momentum quickly among the young in the community, though Werner is mostly interested in electronics and radio. We observe how the mob mentality effects he and the people in his life and how he is disappointed in himself for being unable to stand up for what is right.

We are also introduced to another motherless young person, a young French girl named Marie-Laure. Her journey into the German occupation of France manages to be lonely as only a blind person can experience such deprivation and confusion.

Several personal personal quests manage to move through the Nazi occupation of France even with hunger and need ever-present for the people in the story.

Yes, that is the loose sketch of the novel, but the story is not this summary. No, it is the exquisite moments that take your breath away. The story is the deep simplicity of scene to scene action. The story is vulnerability vis-a-vis brutality. The story is the concussive explosion reverberating through air that is already full of invisible eddies of fugitive sound waves. It is the cliche'-free telling of a tale too delicate for awkward prose and too insistent for hedging. At once tender and devastating.

This historical fiction story manages to take an agoraphobic, a blind girl, a paleontologist, a gemologist, a botanist, and a baker and create a world that slowly gives presence to the stories of family members who fought in WWII. I began to understand how that war still lived for them. I began to fathom the absolute alchemy that happens when one war becomes one's life. So many lives unspoken. 

It has been awhile since I was so moved by a novel. I can compare my reaction to this book to three other books that moved me so: This Side of Brightness: A Novel by Colum McCann, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and Prodigal Summer by Barbra Kingsolver. For different reasons, these books profoundly moved me in unexpected ways. I read All the Light We Cannot See on my ereader and I highlighted so many small, exquisite pieces of writing, simply because I had to stop, "stick a thumb in the pages", and pause to feel those words. 

And when I got to the breathtakingly subtle climax of the book I had to breathe in and breathe out deliberately, my heart silently weeping, that moment crystalline.

Yes, dramatic as hell and supremely, highly readable.
I give it eight out of ten stars.