There are some powerful books out there about slavery and civil rights in America, and there are some incredible works of African post-colonial literature, but this book provided something new –- a juxtaposition between the two.
The story begins with two sisters in West Africa, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other stays on the Gold Coast. But the book is not primarily about these two women -– it’s even more about their descendants. In a series of chapters that read a bit like short stories, we hear the stories of these two women’s descendants, generation by generation, switching back and forth between the two sides of the family. The many threads of stories create a tapestry of history, spanning two continents and nearly three centuries.
The sweep of history seemed at times like its own character, moving forward and affecting everyone in its path. Previous books I’d read about the history of slavery had only focused on one or the other side of the Atlantic. But this juxtaposition of the history of West Africa with the history of enslaved West Africans in the United States provided new and fascinating perspective. This book juxtaposes the conflict between the Asante, the Fante, and the British in West Africa (and its effect on the slave trade) with the ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act on free black families in the American north. It juxtaposes the changing relationships between people groups in Africa as the white missionaries moved in with the way black identity as an African-American contrasts with black identity as a Ghanaian. It juxtaposes the growth of independence movements in West Africa with the heroin epidemic in Harlem. This book interacts with the sweep of history on both sides of the Atlantic in a complex and compelling way, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character development for the scope of historical overview.
The characterization in this book is exquisite. We only have the space of a short story to get to know each character, and the chronology switches back and forth between the two sides of the family, so the narrative could have easily ended up jumbled and confusing. For me, it was the characterization that prevented this and held the book together. Each character seemed so real and alive. There was true depth and roundness to the characters as well. With such brief snapshots into each moment in history, and such an ambitious scope to the book, it would have been easy for the book to compress each character’s life into the-black-experience-during-such-and-such-a-time-period. But this wasn’t the case at all. Certainly, the black experience over the course of history was a main theme, but characters also interacted with family conflict, work challenges, friendships, marriages, the conflict between desire and duty, mental health difficulties, societal challenges, and many other aspects of life. Their lives came across as vivid and multi-faceted.
I’m always particularly curious about the portrayal of characters with scars and physical disabilities in books, and so I found the chapter about a man with a large burn on his face to be particularly intriguing. The interaction with his scarring carried on into his daughter’s story, and the following description of her response to his scars was very moving to me:
“Whenever her father or grandmother asked her about pain, Marjorie would say she had never known it. As a young child, someone had told her that the scars her father wore on his face and grandmother on her hands and feet were born of great pain. And because Marjorie had no scars that resembled those, she could never bring herself to complain of pain. Once, when she was just a little girl, she had watched a ringworm on her knee grow and grow and grow. She’d hidden it from her parents for nearly two weeks, until the worm overtook the curve where thigh met calf, making it difficult for her to bend. When she’d finally shown her parents, her mother had vomited, and her father had snatched her in his arms and rushed her to the emergency room. The orderly who came to call them back had been startled, not by the worm, but by her father’s scar. She’d asked if he was the one who needed help.”
As you can see from this section, the writing in this book is vivid and compelling. I was struck with how a lifetime of emotions about the character’s own response to her father’s scars and the responses of strangers can be wrapped up and tangled into a single powerful scene. Throughout the book, the author uses striking anecdotes like this one to express a chaotic variety of emotions. The immediacy and compactness of the writing carries throughout the book.
All in all, I found this to be a vivid and intriguing book. While there were times when it the content was graphic and difficult, the characters were so beautifully drawn that it kept me engaged and invested in finding out what would happen. The interaction between the history of West Africa and the history of enslaved Africans in the US was a fascinating juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The writing was arresting and vivid, and I look forward to seeing what Yaa Gyasi writes next.