Roots by Alex Haley

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Avery Brooks. BBC Audio, 2007. Originally published 1976. 30 hours, 7 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “The Saga of an American Family”, Haley’s book begins in the eighteenth century with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young African male of the Mandinka people captured from present-day Gambia and sold into slavery in 1767. The story progresses through the lives of seven generations of Kunta Kinte’s descendants and is largely based upon the stories passed down to Haley by his Grandmother Cynthia, whose father was emancipated from slavery in 1865.

There is some debate whether or not Haley’s book should be shelved as fiction or nonfiction but, regardless of genre, it is clear why this sweeping saga won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The beauty of this story lies in its presentation of people — their emotions, the intimacy of their relationships, the horrors of their situations — and the way these characters are determined to keep their family together in memory when slavery kept them physically separated.

It is difficult to image these characters were singularly created by Haley; they seem to mirror real people in a way not always found in a novel. What happened to the characters may appear to be overused tropes in literature, but the characters themselves are so beautifully written that they transcend this charge.

I listened to the audiobook and so I cannot back this statement up with page numbers, but it felt as though much of the story was focused on Kunta Kinte’s life with his grandson, Chicken George, receiving a fair amount of attention compared to Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. It felt very much as though she was the medium between the two man who interested Haley the most, and this feeling as well as the rushed presentation of the connection between Chicken George and the author would be my only complaints about the novel as a whole.

That said, the time spent detailing Kunta Kinte’s life in present-day Gambia — his culture, his family, his traditions — and his adjustment (for lack of a better word) to slavery in the United States contained some of the most emotionally evocative passages in the book. At no time did I feel impassive as I listened to the seemingly indescribable fear and sense of loss Kunta Kinte experienced as he was transported across the ocean in chains, renamed “Toby”, or forced to abandon his religion and his language.

Admittedly, I avoided this book for so long because of its sheer size — 729 pages in paperback — and I am glad I turned to the audiobook, which is a little over thirty hours in length, narrated by Avery Brooks to help me overcome my timidity towards the novel. Brooks’ voice is just lovely — deep, warm, infused with emotion as just the right moment — and his narration added to my love of the characters and the story they reside in.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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12 thoughts on “Roots by Alex Haley

    1. I saw parts of the mini-series based on this book around the time I was in middle school, but I was easily scared off by the size of the book and it was never assigned as required reading. I’d like to think it was because of the length but we tended to focus on British literature at my high school.

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  1. I have a vague recollection of seeing some of the bits from the TV series in the 70’s, but my parents deemed it too ‘sexy’ for a 10 yr old & wouldn’t let me watch it through!
    Dad also had the book, with a ‘sexy’ cover, which tantalised me as a young teen!
    It was only as an adult, I realised that the book was an epic tale about slavery & family and not another Harold Robbins!

    I would love to read it one day…but 700+ pages is a little off-putting right now.

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    1. The only scene that I remember from the TV series is Kizzy being sexually assaulted by the slave owner so that it probably right about where my parents turned off the television and told me I couldn’t watch any more.

      (A similar thing occurred with Stephen King’s Green Mile and I had to sneak peeks at the book in order to find out the ending.)

      What really made me want to read it, though, was the lovely made-for-tv film “The Color of Friendship” where the white, South African character stays up all night reading the novel in the home of her host family, who happen to be black Americans. Only took me 14 years to finally get over my fear of the 700+ pages.

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  2. I haven’t read this, but it’s definitely a classic that I need to read. I have always been intimidated by its size too, but it’s great to hear it’s such an amazing read.

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    1. The size seems to be a common barrier. I picked up a hardback copy once and realized there was no way I could stand to sit for long stretches of time with it in my lap. I’m glad I went with the audio, but it was a little daunting to load 527 tracks onto my iPod. I thought I’d never finish it.

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    1. Yay! I was hoping my review would encourage people to overcome the intimidating size of the book. I know I would have let it languish on my shelf where it not for the Classics Club spin.

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  3. I remember all the excitement and controversy over the mini-series when it first aired. I was old enough to watch it all but just barely. I rewatched the mini-series a few years ago and admired it very much. While the production values are of it’s time the acting is excellent. I also felt the way it depicted slavery and race in America was so close to the bone that it would not stand a chance of being made today.

    I’ve never read the book, but you have me thinking that I should give it a try.

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