About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Catching up, again

It's been 6 weeks now, and I just may be smoothly back in the 9-to-5 groove again. The job's pretty good, the commute is unbeatable ... but after 6 months of being able to smell the roses, even if I couldn't afford to buy them, it takes time to change the routine. In other words, I've still been reading quite a bit these last few weeks, but not blogging about it.

In what's more or less the correct order, the books I've read since you saw me last have been ...
#13 - Roots: The Saga of an American Family (30th anniversary ed.), by Alex Haley (New York, 2007).

Summary (from my favorite public library's web site, as I returned the book weeks ago): "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 1,000,000 copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130,000,000 people. 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. Roots also fostered a remarkable dialogue about not just the past, but the then present day 1970's and how America had fared since the days of slavery. Roots: The 30th Anniversary Edition will remind the generation that originally read it (and watched the miniseries) that there are issues that still need to be discussed, and to introduce to a new and younger generation, a book that will help them understand, perhaps for the first time, the drama and reality of what took place during the time period."

My reaction: I liked it. Yes, I'm aware of the controversy about how much of the story was true and how much was (ahem) "inspired by actual events," and tagged it as nonfiction with some qualms. Frankly, though, the book works well even as just a novel, and its impact on public sentiment and popular culture are undeniable.

Just in case there's anyone out there who's even tardier than I am about reading the book, and isn't familiar with the story, it begins in the late 1700s in the Gambia with the birth of a "man-child" called Kunta Kinte. Proportionally, Kunta's boyhood and coming of age get a tremendous amount of air time here, compared to how quickly entire generations seem to pass later in the story, but I think I understand this. If you'll forgive the analogy, it reminds me of what Margaret Mitchell did at the beginning of Gone With the Wind: thorough, painstaking description of a way of life that, once the events of the story get underway, can't possibly be the same again. In Kunta Kinte's case, this transition comes when, while a teenaged man-boy, he is kidnapped by toubob slave traders and, after a horrific trans-Atlantic voyage that kills almost half the human cargo, sold to a Virginia plantation owner.

Some years later, Kunta comes to respect and eventually marry Bell, the cook on "his" plantation. The couple have a daughter, who Kunta names Kizzy (which means "stay put" in his native tongue) in hopes that she'll grow up with them and not be sold away. Heartbreakingly, when their otherwise as-good-as-they-get master discovers that a) Kizzy, now 15, can read and write; and b) more importantly, she's used this knowledge to help another young slave escape, these hopes are thwarted. Kizzy is sold south to a far-away plantation in the Carolinas, where she learns in brutal fashion just what her new owner, Tom Lea, bought her for. The product of her rape is a son, George, who, in time, rises to a favored position in his own master's household as an unparalleled breeder and trainer of fighting cocks (hence, his nickname, "Chicken George.")

George is rather a ladies' man, and (of course) ultimately falls for and marries the one woman he can't get any other way: the devout, beautiful Matilda. Together, the two raise a large family of their own (or rather, Matilda raises them, as George seems to be either traveling to cock fights or preoccupied with who knows what else more often than not), including one son, Tom, whose training and skill as a plantation blacksmith serves him well in the uncertain post-Emancipation South. Tom, his wife Irene, their 8 children, Chicken George, and a handful of neighbors strike out for new territory, opting to try their luck at real freedom, rather than simply hiring on as sharecroppers somewhere. According to Haley, it's Tom and Irene's granddaughter, Bertha -- daughter of their youngest child, Cynthia -- who ultimately marries Simon Alexander Haley, and becomes his mother.

The book's almost 900 pages long as is, but I guess my only real complaint is that later generations of Kinte's descendants and Haley's forbears, after Kizzy and George, seem to get short shrift. George and Matilda, and then Tom and Irene, both have such large families that, with decades passing by in only a page or 2, it's hard to keep track of who's who. I would have liked to know more about Tom and Irene, Cynthia, and even Bertha, and how their lives were affected by the lessons and stories Kunta had passed on to Kizzy and then (presumably, through George and Tom) down to them.

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