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.

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