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spoko

spoko

Currently reading

The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia
David E. Hoffman
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diana Burgin, Katherine Tiernan O'Connor
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Arun Gandhi, Marshall B. Rosenberg
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas, Timothy Keller
Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63
Taylor Branch
The Path to Power
Robert A. Caro
The Nature of Nebraska: Ecology and Biodiversity
Paul A. Johnsgard
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D.G. Kelley
Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese
Roots: The Saga of an American Family - Alex Haley

The concept of this book is ambitious, and intriguing. There are both advantages and disadvantages of this narrow approach to telling black America's history—what it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in depth. And vice-versa, it must be said. The conditions of slavery described here seem—to my imperfect understanding—to be a sort of median among the range of conditions that existed. But having some sense of the extremes makes for a much fuller understanding. That said, of course, it can hardly be the job of one single book to create that fuller understanding. And the depth of experience described here is really valuable.

 

I loved the book, and highly recommend it. But since I don't have much to say about that which hasn't already been said before, let me point out two things I wasn't wild about. The first is the technique Haley used to try and locate the narrative in time for his readers. Slave conversations full of names, locations, and other specific details did the expository work he wanted them to do, I suppose, but they were jarringly unrealistic. Especially in a book with so much rich detail, they really took me out of the narrative. I would much rather he simply named the years at the beginning of each chapter, or something along those lines. His characters could then have made vague allusions to events (as they surely would have in real life), rather than speaking about them as though they were teaching a survey course.

 

The second issue I have is more significant. Haley deals with the most recent generation or two in about as much space as it takes him to describe individual days and nights earlier in the book. It's not hard to imagine why he might do this. He may have just been ready to move on. Perhaps he thought his reader would be familiar enough with recent history so that his description wouldn't add much, and perhaps he thought recent history was simply less important than previous generations. Surely he also felt some (economic, professional, literary) pressure to get the thing done and to keep the length manageable. I have to wonder whether there was ever a discussion of making it a two-volume work, to allow more space for this part of the story, but I doubt it was seriously considered. I'm conscious of this lack, though, and it feels like a real one, partly because of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. She points out quite well, I think, the way this chapter of America's race history has been underestimated and undervalued. She also shows quite well how individual stories can be used to illuminate it. It's a shame, really, that Haley didn't do the same.

 

But again, I really liked this book, those two complaints notwithstanding. I'm also aware of the controversy surrounding Haley's claims about how factual the book is. I'm put off by that, certainly. But I never assumed the book was at all factual until I finally reached the end (where he makes that claim). So I'm judging it here on its merits as a work of historical fiction, and on that ground I think it stands pretty firmly.