Retro Friday Reviews are hosted by Angieville. Basically you review an older or lesser known title on Fridays. It’s a super cool feature!
It is a challenge reading about history’s darkest moments. I often don’t know how to review it best, because how do you judge someone’s life experience or their personal history? Roots by Alex Haley is a book I read throughout February with a group of bloggers as part of a read along hosted by Reading Thru The Night. Roots is a fictionalized account of Haley’s family history. There are also allegations of Haley plagiarizing a book called The African, which frankly was something that sat in my mind while reading Roots.
Roots by Alex Haley is a sprawling family epic which traces Haley’s ancestry all the way back to a man named Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in Africa to present day, well at time of publication present day. Roots is at it’s strongest during Kunta Kinte’s story. It opens with the birth of Kunta and we get to read in incredible detail about Kunta’s upbringing and manhood training. We see moments of tenderness towards his father, Omoro and little brother, Lamin. We see Kunta’s agony as he is kidnapped while gathering materials to make a drum and placed on a slave ship bound for America. I think the build up of Kunta’s life in Africa makes his kidnapping all the more poignant. It is absolutely heart wrenching, what the Africans who were forced into slavery went through.
Eventually Roots gets to Haley’s ancestor, Chicken George, and honestly this is where Roots lost most of the steam for me. I found Chicken George to be totally unlikable, as I am one of those people who HAS to at least like the characters I am reading about. I didn’t care for Haley’s choice of spending two pages on the American Revolution but at the VERY LEAST thirty page on George’s cock fights. I mean as a character, Chicken George cheats on his wife, he blows his family’s savings on stupid shit, and he scrapes and bows to his master. I felt like Chicken George did not have honor in the same way that Kunta Kinte had honor, or the character who takes over the next bit of narration, George’s son, Tom the Blacksmith.
Stylistically, Roots has very short chapters. Haley’s writing is very to the point and plot driven. The characters speak in dialect, which lends authenticity, but sometimes I found it hard to decode. I guess I would have liked to be more invested in the characters beyond Kunta Kinte, but wasn’t really given the chance. For example, Haley brings up all of these complex and tough topics like rape and the difficulty of being a white master’s illegitimate son but just totally loses out on the opportunity to add nuance and just really explore and probe the characters and instead focuses on inane things like training the roosters for fights instead. I don’t know maybe there was a literary choice behind all of that, I just felt like it was missing something.
Frankly, I liked the tv miniseries of Roots better, but perhaps that is because it is more tightly plotted and all the extra crap is cut out. I will say that if you want to explore this alley of American History and gain more insight into Black History, Roots by Alex Haley is not a bad direction to go in. Just because it’s a long read does not mean it’s an especially hard read – ability wise I mean. Yes, there are some emotional parts, but overall, I didn’t think it was too terribly difficult to get through. On the whole, I liked reading Roots, I just wish some bits had been cut.
Disclosure: Purchased copy.