A Fine Vintage: Roots by Alex Haley

on Friday, July 30, 2010
It never occurred to me while packing up the old family home that so many of the books on my parents' bookshelves were from 1976. I guess it makes sense. Mum could not possibly have had anything better to do with her time while baby me was puking and shitting on her furniture. Boys From Brazil was there (on the shelf, not the furniture); I remember stuffing it in a box thinking I'd never have cause to read it. So was a ragged paperback copy of Roots, which now also lies squished inside a musty cardboard box at the back of a warehouse. For the thirty-odd years it sat there staring me in the face (the bookshelf was above the TV), I had been tempted to pick it up and give it a go, knowing what a major cultural milestone it was supposed to be. But I had an aversion to fictionalised historical family memoirs. Still do, despite spending the past five years working on one of my own. Daniel Mendelsohn sealed the deal for me. All the fuss surrounding his mammoth tome The Lost got me momentarily excited about the genre but, well, despite pretty much everyone naming it the best book of 2006 I thought it was kind of crap. Just more of the typical lapsed Jew waxing lyrical about traditions and religious observances that anyone with half a clue would not only take as patronising but also realise was often ill-informed.

Point is, I was in two-minds when it came to reading Alex Haley's equally gigantic classic for this month's A Fine Vintage challenge. On one shoulder, the good angel (I'm picturing Oprah) was saying in a soft, gentle voice to approach with an open mind. On the other, the evil angel (clearly Mendelsohn or, now I think about, also maybe Oprah) was warning me away at the top of his brimstone-filled lungs. A deal is a deal, says I, and so putting on a pair of fuzzy earmuffs to block out the cacophony I settled on my couch with a spankin' new copy of Roots.

Forget the fact that Alex Haley plagiarised a bunch of stuff in the book and had to settle out-of-court with some other fellow. Forget about its accuracy as an historical document. Roots, whatever the hell technical category it might slot into, is a damn good read. That said, it is let down by the way in which it seems to have been made palatable for a mass American market. The story of Kunta Kinte and the seven generations that followed him until the birth of the author is gorgeous, painful and, at times, harrowing. Haley portrays the slaves with a dignity, intelligence and rich cultural tradition that, I imagine until this book was published, had generally been denied them. All the ugly stuff we associate with the slave trade is there to be seen, although its impact is softened in the telling. I'm sure I will be strung up by my toes for suggesting this, but I wish Haley had been a little more brutal in relating the slave experience. Either Kinte's descendants were the luckiest slaves this side of the Mason Dixon line (the brutality and degradations visited upon them were contextually minor), or Haley felt that he had to dumb down their experience lest his greater message be silenced by unwilling publishers. Don't get me wrong, I really admire Alex Haley and think Roots is a great book. It does, however, have some serious shortfalls that might be understandable for various reasons but cannot be altogether dismissed.

Well, dear Bookworms, that brings another month's challenge to an end. I reckon '76 really was a fine vintage after all. Stay tuned now for August where I will take on a completely non-self indulgent theme of truly epic proportions. And one-up my clumsy dalliances in haiku...


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