Four star review, originally posted here on October 7, 2019.
I am delayed reviewing this one because I had just too much to say and react to and needed a step away from it to keep me from rambling. I think I can do this now.
Starting with the negatives: I’ve heard there have plagiarism accusations, which of course are terrible. So that’s out of the way.
Next up, I personally was surprised by how long we stayed with Kunta Kinte’s story back home in Africa, learning about his village life. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but I personally was just getting kinda bored, I think because I was expecting to go through so many generations of the family that I was confused to still be on our first guy a third of the way through the book.
I also found the ending, where Haley pats himself on the back for all of his amazing research and writing, to be a bit arrogant and blabbering. It could have easily been just chopped.
And the big one: This book was agonizingly sexist, especially towards the beginning when we hear about life in the village. Part of this makes sense, if we’re trying to understand how society at the time valued women (apparently not at all!). But part of it came off as Haley himself. Like I already said, our first character got hundreds of pages for his story. But his daughter literally only gets a couple chapters- just long enough for her to fall for a boy, get raped, and give birth to our NEXT very important character who eats up another third of the book. A couple women towards the very end are slightly more developed, but by that point it’s too little too late for me.
Okay, all that being said, note I still rated this at 4 stars. It’s not perfect, but it is a damned important book. It provides an amazing way of looking at American history- from the lives of people who have been here since before the birth of the nation, but who for the majority of that history have been omitted. Hearing the references to what is happening out in the white world, as it trickles to the slave family, and juxtaposing that with famous black people at the same time, and seeing how all of these parallel developments do or do not affect these people’s lives, was a powerful way to re-approach our country’s story.
One scene in particular will stick with me for a while. I don’t want to do any spoilers, but it is a scene where one of our protagonists sits down with his master (who is also his father) and the two have an informal conversation looking back at their lives together. The way in which the white slaveowner legitimately believes that he and this man who he has enslaved are actually friends was mind-boggling. But it helps shed light on how blind people can be to their own awfulness, and encourages us to reexamine and reevaluate our own views. That’s of course something from which everyone in our current society could benefit.