Roots Alex Haley Retro Friday Book Review

Retro Friday Reviews are hosted by Angieville. Basically you review an older or lesser known title on Fridays. It’s a super cool feature!

It is a challenge reading about history’s darkest moments. I often don’t know how to review it best, because how do you judge someone’s life experience or their personal history? Roots by Alex Haley is a book I read throughout February with a group of bloggers as part of a read along hosted by Reading Thru The Night. Roots is a fictionalized account of Haley’s family history. There are also allegations of Haley plagiarizing a book called The African, which frankly was something that sat in my mind while reading Roots.

Roots Alex Haley Book Cover

Roots

Roots by Alex Haley is a sprawling family epic which traces Haley’s ancestry all the way back to a man named Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in Africa to present day, well at time of publication present day. Roots is at it’s strongest during Kunta Kinte’s story. It opens with the birth of Kunta and we get to read in incredible detail about Kunta’s upbringing and manhood training. We see moments of tenderness towards his father, Omoro and little brother, Lamin. We see Kunta’s agony as he is kidnapped while gathering materials to make a drum and placed on a slave ship bound for America. I think the build up of Kunta’s life in Africa makes his kidnapping all the more poignant. It is absolutely heart wrenching, what the Africans who were forced into slavery went through.

Eventually Roots gets to Haley’s ancestor, Chicken George, and honestly this is where Roots lost most of the steam for me. I found Chicken George to be totally unlikable, as I am one of those people who HAS to at least like the characters I am reading about. I didn’t care for Haley’s choice of spending two pages on the American Revolution but at the VERY LEAST thirty page on George’s cock fights. I mean as a character, Chicken George cheats on his wife, he blows his family’s savings on stupid shit, and he scrapes and bows to his master. I felt like Chicken George did not have honor in the same way that Kunta Kinte had honor, or the character who takes over the next bit of narration, George’s son, Tom the Blacksmith.

Stylistically, Roots has very short chapters. Haley’s writing is very to the point and plot driven. The characters speak in dialect, which lends authenticity, but sometimes I found it hard to decode. I guess I would have liked to be more invested in the characters beyond Kunta Kinte, but wasn’t really given the chance. For example, Haley brings up all of these complex and tough topics like rape and the difficulty of being a white master’s illegitimate son but just totally loses out on the opportunity to add nuance and just really explore and probe the characters and instead focuses on inane things like training the roosters for fights instead. I don’t know maybe there was a literary choice behind all of that, I just felt like it was missing something.

Frankly, I liked the tv miniseries of Roots better, but perhaps that is because it is more tightly plotted and all the extra crap is cut out. I will say that if you want to explore this alley of American History and gain more insight into Black History, Roots by Alex Haley is not a bad direction to go in. Just because it’s a long read does not mean it’s an especially hard read – ability wise I mean. Yes, there are some emotional parts, but overall, I didn’t think it was too terribly difficult to get through. On the whole, I liked reading Roots, I just wish some bits had been cut.

Disclosure: Purchased copy.

Other reviews of Roots by Alex Haley:

Reading Thru The Night
Stacy’s Books
A Literary Odyssey

About April (Books&Wine)

April is 28 years old and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. In her free time she can be found reading, working out, or eating junk food. She often wears her sunglasses at night.

Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to read this but have been intimidated by the size. Plus, the TV series seems to be the reference point when discussing Roots, so I never felt I had to read it (of course, I’d still like to). It’s encouraging to hear it’s not a difficult read.
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  2. I’ve never heard of this book before. I’m guessing the allegations of plagiarism were never confirmed considering it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner.

    This book doesn’t really call to me, but I enjoyed reading your review!
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  3. My mom took a Black Lit class in college and I told her a few weeks ago that there was a blogger (you!) who was reading Roots. She said that it was one of the hardest books for her to ever get through (and she was an English major!). She said that it was just an overall long and rough read and that she wasn’t comfortable with all of the topics that it brought up (I’m thinking the rape).

    Ps – I’m not a fan of lots of dialect when it gets to the point of being hard to decipher.
    Sash from Sash and Em recently posted..Blog Tour – Embrace by: Jessica Shirvington – Author Interview & GiveawayMy Profile

  4. I read this so long ago I can hardly remember the details. Shortly after the mini-series aired. (I’m dating myself, I know.) I remember liking the book, but like you, thinking it was a bit long and parts were difficult to get through. Great mini-series, though. You have made me want to watch it (not read it) again!
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  5. That writing style sounds fantastic for this type of epic read. I may stick with the mini series for the streamlined plot.

  6. Wow. I’m really impressed that you finished this book–I’ve never been able to make it through George. He just pissed me off way too much (and the cock fighting made me sick).

    I really need to read more of the classics–I’ve hit most of the classics in British Literature through my Brit Lit and Shakespeare classes but kind of failed when it came to American (the one American Lit class I took went WAAAAY back and I really didn’t enjoy it!).
    Mary @ Book Swarm recently posted..Kiss Me, I’m Irish: HOUNDED by Kevin Hearne Read Along Week 2My Profile

    • Yeah Chicken George is douche.

      I kind of feel like the opposite, I’ve read a lot of American classics but not a whole lot of the British classics, just a Bronte and an Austen here and there.

  7. Wow, the man totally lost respect from a lot of people when the plagiarism came to light, eh? This seems like a very harrowing read, emotionally I mean. You are brave to get through it.
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    • Yeah, I think he totally did, but I mean overall he looks to have enjoyed a high level of success and like, it seems like the plagiarism was very hushed up, I only knew about it through another blogger and some googling.

      Parts are hard to get through, yes.

  8. As you know, I pretty much totally agree with you about everything. The Kunta Kinte part of the book was absolutely fantastic (and I’m still wondering if all that was plagiarized).

    Chicken George was SO ANNOYING. I guess he is the person Haley knew the most about to write – and that is a crying shame. I’d rather have cut a lot of him out and spent more time with Tom, who was so much classier.
    Allison (Allure of Books) recently posted..I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally CarterMy Profile

    • Yes, Kunta Kinte was the best and easy to care about.

      Sigh, it really sucks that Haley seemed to know the most about Chicken George because he totally blew.

      Word. More time with Tom for a better book.

  9. First of all, I am very proud of you for making it through this and (Allison @inconceivably as well) because I just do not want to do something that big right now. But during February, I was conscious of you reading Roots the entire time, and you earned mad respect from me, not only because of the size but because of content. I mean, it’s freaking ROOTS. Not known for fluffy, ya know?

    Second, unrelated sort of, but as far as the miniseries goes – and also in real life – LeVar Burton RULES. Seriously one of the coolest people ever, and I’ve always felt that way, not just right now as I’m reading about Roots.
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