This was a powerful book about the impacts of slavery, and for me it was another book of summer that completely lived up to the hype. Gyasi writes of two sisters, living in two different African villages. One marries a white slaver and remains in what is today Ghana, and the other is captured at fifteen, put into the slave market, and sent to the United States. Gyasi then explores the stories of generations of offspring from these two women.
While there are many books that explore the lives of slaves in the U.S., such as The Underground Railroad, Kindred, and the excellent works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, this book also explores the lives of Africans, including their culpability for selling the people of other African tribes into slavery. While Africa is depicted as lush and beautiful, Gyasi doesn’t shy away from depicting its brutality as well.
This is author Gyasi’s first novel. Gyasi was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. as a toddler. As a student at Stanford, she received a grant to travel to Ghana to explore her mother’s family. She visited the Cape Coast Castle, a British slave fort, where she learned that some of the British soldiers married local women, and this sparked the idea for the beginning of her novel.
Esi would have married him in the summer, when the sun stretched long and high, when the palm trees could be tapped for wine, climbed by the spriest children, their arms holding the trunk in a hug as they shinnied to the top to pluck the fruits that waited there.
When she wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of these things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.
The book is beautifully written, following themes across families on both continents. Gyasi explores the rich folklore of the people of this region and of course the brutal impacts of slavery, oppression, family history, and at times, the brutal separation of family and what it means to grow up without a name or a history. One of my favorite characters was H, a man who is born into slavery but freed during his lifetime. It doesn’t last. In Alabama, he is jailed for looking at a white woman and sold into servitude when he can’t pay a ten-dollar fine, forced to labor in brutal conditions in a coal mine for years. He never knew his mother, never had more than an initial for a name.
If there was one thing I struggled with in this book, it was the frequent changes from generation to generation. I always have difficulty in books that move quickly from story to story, because I prefer to explore a character in depth. This book introduces really interesting characters and situations, but then it jumped to the next generation when I was still wanting more. And some stories were less interesting than others, although only a few. For the most part, with each generation change, Gyasi quickly envelops you into the current time and its characters.
I read in one interview that Gyasi felt strongly about keeping her book a conventional length. So in order to cover seven generations on two continents she needed to keep each story brief, which explains my feeling of disruption across several of the stories.
While the long timespan of this book, and its troubling subject matter, makes for a difficult read, Gyasi’s vision and thoughtful writing makes it worth the effort. The whole point is to see how the actions of one generation impact the next, and the next one after that. We may know this already, but Gyasi really shows us.