Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Roots by Alex Haley
Dell, 1976
massmarket paperback, 729 pages
ISBN-10: 0440174643
family saga
very highly recommended

From the Publisher
One of the most important books and television series ever to appear, Roots, galvanized the nation, and created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue that hadn't been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book sold over one million copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130 million people. It also won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Roots opened up the minds of Americans of all colors and faiths to one of the darkest and most painful parts of America's past.

Over the years, both Roots and Alex Haley have attracted controversy, which comes with the territory for trailblazing, iconic books, particularly on the topic of race. Some of the criticism results from whether Roots is fact or fiction and whether Alex Haley confused these two issues, a subject he addresses directly in the book. There is also the fact that Haley was sued for plagiarism when it was discovered that several dozen paragraphs in Roots were taken directly from a novel, The African, by Harold Courlander, who ultimately received a substantial financial settlement at the end of the case.
My thoughts:

Roots is very highly recommended. I really should have read it sooner .
I'm not going to address the plagiarism and all the other controversies surrounding Roots and Alex Haley's genealogy research, other than to say that it reinforces the absolute necessity for writers to credit any and all sources they use for their books, even fiction, and there would have been no shame in admitting parts of his lineage were true and parts were unknown speculation. I read Roots knowing about the issues surrounding it and still would say that it is a book well worth reading.


Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a manchild was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte. opening

While Binta planted her onions, yams, gourds, cassava, and bitter tomatoes, little Kunta spent his days romping under the watchful eyes of the several old grandmothers who took care of all the children of Juffure who belonged to the first kafo, which included those under five rains of age. pg. 18

No matter how bad anything was, Nyo Boto would always remember a time when it was worse. pg. 21

Kunta's home-training had been so strict that, it seemed to him, his every move drew Binta's irritated finger-snapping - if, indeed, he wasn't grabbed and soundly whipped. pg. 31

That afternoon the harmattan wind began. It wasn't a hard wind, nor even a gusty wind, either of which would have helped. Instead it blew softly and steadily, dusty and dry, day and night, for nearly half a moon. As it did each time it came, the constant blowing of the harmattan wore away slowly at the nerves of the people of Juffure. And soon Parents were yelling more often than usual at their children, and whipping them for no good reason. pg. 57

So frightened was Lamin by his father's talk of slave-taking and white cannibals that he awakened Kunta several times that night with his bad dreams. pg. 73

"When you return home," said the kintango, "you will begin to serve Juffure as its eyes and ears. You will be expected to stand guard over the village - beyond the gates as lookouts for toubob [white man] and other savages, and in the fields as sentries to keep the crops safe from scavengers. You will also be charged with the responsibility of inspecting the woman's cooking pots - including those of your own mothers - to make sure they are kept clean, and you will be expected to reprimand them most severely if any dirt or insects are found inside." The boys could hardly wait to begin their duties. Pg. 123

Kunta wondered if he had gone mad. Naked, chained, shackled, he awoke on his back between two other men in a pitch darkness full of steamy heat and sickening stink and a nightmarish bedlam of shrieking, weeping, and vomiting. pg. 166

To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents along with the myriad textural details....have come from years of intensive research.....Since I wasn't far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place. pg. 726-727


Anna said...

This is one of those books I've always meant to read but haven't. I better get on that. Thanks for the review!

Diary of an Eccentric

Unknown said...

I have often thought about reading this one. I will try to find a copy now I have read your great review.

Lori L said...

I'm not sure why exactly I put off reading Roots for so long. I had always planned to but never got around to it until now. It was definitely worth reading!