Friday, June 03, 2016


When I heard that the History Channel was doing a remake of Roots, I decided that I better buckle down and read the Alex Haley blockbuster from the 1970s so that I could watch it.  I only saw bits and pieces of the original Roots, since mine was one of those families that didn't always have a TV while I was growing up.

Anyway, Alex Haley's Roots was one of the several chunkster books that I read in April and May and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A few observations...
- I had no idea that more than half the book was Kunta Kinte's story, with a very large part taking place in Africa before he was captured and brought to America as a slave.  I really enjoyed reading about life and customs in the village of Juffure in the Gambia.  I blush to confess that I didn't know that the people in that part of the world at that time (mid 1700s) would be Muslim, but once I learned that it made sense.  Just had never thought of it before.
- The part of the original series that I watched and remember best was the story of Chicken George, and this was my favorite part of the book as well.  Such a colorful character, literally, though cockfighting is a truly appalling activity.
- The writing wasn't the best, even though Haley did win a Pulitzer prize for Roots.  For example, I thought it awkward and clumsy the way Haley told the history of the U.S. by having one of the slave characters recount what he or she overheard the white characters discuss. Although it did help to provide a timeline for the main characters.
- I thought it a bit frustrating although realistic how we didn't learn the full fate of Kunta Kinte and his wife Bell.  Once their daughter Kizzy was sold, she never saw them again or heard of their fate, and neither did the reader.
- Having read 12 Years a Slave last year and several novels about slavery, I was prepared for the violence and cruelty but it's never easy reading.  I couldn't help remembering how much I loved Gone With the Wind when I was young and what an insult I now consider that novel to the African-American experience.
- I've been doing a fair amount of genealogy work on my own family, so it was very interesting and moving to read about the author's journey of family discovery.  I love history, and I love stories, and so family history and individuals' stories are near and dear to my heart.
- Final quibble - I am reading the version I chose for my opening image, and there were a lot of typos.  Amazingly and disappointingly so.  How hard is it to get the words right in a 30th anniversary edition?

I've been recording the new series and look forward to starting it this weekend.  However, I have to say, 4 2-hour installments doesn't seem nearly long enough to do the book justice.  But then, I'm used to Outlander, which has been so faithful to the books that I'm afraid nothing else will be able to touch it in terms of getting it right.


  1. Great commentary.

    I think I watched the original the second time that it was was shown on television. It is truly a great and important mini series. Though it was so long ago that I watched it, images and scenes still seem vivid in my mind.

    I would like to read this. I have thought about doing so for a long time.

  2. I'm not sure I have the patience to read a book that long with typos and less than stellar writing, but I'd love to watch the History Channel's remake!

  3. Great observations, Jane. Chicken George's parts, and his character, is also one of my favorites. I really liked the actor who played him in the mini-series.

    I'm anxious to hear what you think of the mini-series. I was kind of disappointed.

    So glad that we read the book. Now I can check one off that I've been "meaning to read for a long time."

    P.S. I read the 1978 Picador trade paperback version and I think I only spotted on typo. Shameful that the 30th anniversary version had so many!

  4. Glad to hear that you enjoyed this book. It is now on my TBR. I also meant to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Haley ghost wrote. I know what you mean about GWTW. I don't know how I would feel about reading it now.

  5. Wow, I'm impressed you went back to read the book - I have never read it myself. Though I vividly recall watching the original mini-series on TV as a child - our whole family was glued to the TV every night - it was really quite an event. I was disappointed to hear they'd remade it since the original was so incredible. Guess I should watch it for myself before deciding!

    Also wanted to remind you that it is summer again....and time for another Big Book Summer Challenge! I hope you enjoyed it when you participated two years ago and will consider joining the fun again! All you need to participate is to plan on reading at least one book of 400+ pages before Labor Day (early Sept)!


    2016 Big Book Summer Challenge

    1. Yes, there is a lot of nostalgia around Roots--lots of people remember watching every night with their family. Those days of pre-cable, pre-VCR, pre-tape/DVD, meant that the whole country was watching the same thing pretty much...sort of like Super Bowl Sunday.

  6. Interesting commentary on the book. I recall the miniseries when I was a kid, which sort of blew me away. We were glued to it. I didn't realize the book had so much about the African story -- I recall the miniseries mostly about what happens once the ship gets to America. Would you say that 12 Years a Slave is a better book than Roots? I liked a lot of the actors in the series.

  7. Perhaps Alex Haley and Harriet Beecher Stowe have this is common: one can find things to complain of in the writing at times, but the significance of the book for the nation is so much larger than that, and it will last in memory for that reason. Indelible characters who draw out new levels of empathy, another commonality.

    Your comment about Kizzy not knowing fate of her parents is an important observation. Perhaps brilliant of Haley NOT to take an omniscient stance, and therefore put reader in Kizzy's place, experiencing the anguish of separation and never knowing what became of her parents. As you said so well, "frustrating but realistic."

    1. You are right to compare Haley and Stowe in terms of the significance of their works on the American experience.

  8. I also appreciated the link to Juffure, Gambia, page and photos! Good to see it.