Although I had seen most of the TV mini-series back in the 70’s, I’d never actually read the book that started it all, and memories being hazy things, I couldn’t really remember the story. Reading Roots was a reminder of why this book was such a phenomenon when it came out.
Other than being a well-written, interesting, and moving story, there were several things about the book that made a notable impression on me.
First, was the amount of time at the beginning of the story that Haley devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life growing up in Africa. You know what’s eventually going to happen to him, but it took a lot longer to get to than I thought it would. Haley purposely makes you spend a lot of time with Kunta as he grows from a boy into a man, and I noticed that I became very interested in this boy and his life just as it was. Knowing the inevitable was coming, each page got harder and harder to turn, and I started wishing that Kunta would just be able to continue living out his life in his village with the people & the customs that he knew. Of course, that wasn’t his fate, and just when you get to the point where you begin to think that everything will be okay, you reach the page that changes everything for him.
Secondly, I was impressed with the tone of the book. There was no malice, anger, or agenda in Haley’s writing. He wasn’t trying to make a statement or pass judgment; he was simply telling a story about his ancestors, and that is exactly how the story is presented. I thought he was very fair and impartial in his depictions of everyone in the story, white and black. I don’t know how accurate his descriptions & depictions were, but they certainly seemed real; not contrived or sensationalized.
Third, were the abrupt changes that occurred in the story. As an example, for 600 pages or so the story focuses almost exclusively on Kunta, and then suddenly – without warning – you leave him behind while the story takes another path. You never hear another word about him. You never find out his ultimate fate. You are left instead to simply wonder, just as his daughter did. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of loss.
Finally, as Haley brings the generations of the story up to his own life, he relates how, during his research on the book, he was able to track down the actual village in Africa where his ancestor Kunta had lived before his abduction. Kunta was still very much a part of the village’s oral ancestral history, and there was a very moving moment when Haley relates what happened when the people of the village came to realize that he was one of the descendants of Kunta Kinte, this young 17-year old boy who vanished without a trace one day hundreds of years before.
In the end, Roots isn’t really a story about slavery; it’s a story about human beings, the things that we do to each other, and how those things shape every generation to come. I highly recommend it.