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Blonde Rootsby Bernardine Evaristo
"Blonde Roots turns the whole world on its nappy head, and you'll be surprised how different it looks — and how similar. In the reverse-image past that Evaristo imagines, civilized Africans have built a vibrant culture and economy by capturing primitive Europeans and using them as slaves. This ingenious bit of "what-if" speculation provides the backdrop for a thrilling adventure about a "whyte" woman named Doris Scagglethorpe who works as a "house wigger" for Chief Kaga Konata Katamba." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
A provocative novel that upends the history of the transatlantic slave trade, reversing and reexamining notions of savagery and civilization, as it follows a young woman's journey to freedom.
Award-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo's novel Blonde Roots asks: What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behavior? And how would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers — and sometimes festers — today?
We see this tragicomic world turned upside down through the eyes of Doris, an Englishwoman who is kidnapped one day while playing hide-and-seek with her sisters in the fields near their home. She is subsequently enslaved and taken to the New World, as well as to the imperial center of Great Ambossa. She movingly recounts experiences of tremendous hardship and dreams of the people she's left behind, all while journeying toward an escape into freedom.
A poignant and dramatic story grounded in provocative ideas, Blonde Roots is a genuinely original, profoundly imaginative novel.
"British novelist Evaristo delivers an astonishing, uncomfortable and beautiful alternative history that goes back several centuries to flip the slave trade, with 'Aphrikans' enslaving the people of 'Europa' and exporting many of them to 'Amarika.' The plot revolves around Doris, the daughter of a long line of proud cabbage farmers who live in serfdom. After she's kidnapped by slavers, she experiences the horror and inhumanity of slave transport, is sold and works her way back to freedom. The narrative cuts back and forth through time, contrasting the journey to freedom with the journey toward slavery. In a less skilled writer's hands, the premise easily could have worn itself out by the second chapter, but Evaristo's intellectually rigorous narrative constantly surprises, and, for all the barbarism on display, it's strikingly human. Evaristo's novel is a powerful, thoughtful reminder that diabolical behavior can take place in any culture, 'safety' is an illusion and freedom is something easily taken for granted. This difficult and provocative book is a conversation sparker." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
My only complaint about Bernardine Evaristo's alternate history of racial slavery is that it's 150 years late. Imagine the outrage this clever novel would have provoked alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe's incendiary story or Frederick Douglass' memoir! But now, amid the warm glow of 21st-century liberalism, with our brilliant black president, what could we possibly learn from a new satire of slavery?... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Plenty. "Blonde Roots" turns the whole world on its nappy head, and you'll be surprised how different it looks — and how similar. In the reverse-image past that Evaristo imagines, civilized Africans have built a vibrant culture and economy by capturing primitive Europeans and using them as slaves. This ingenious bit of "what-if" speculation provides the backdrop for a thrilling adventure about a "whyte" woman named Doris Scagglethorpe who works as a "house wigger" for Chief Kaga Konata Katamba. (She's branded with his initials: KKK.) The story dashes off the first page as Doris makes her escape during the annual celebration of Voodoomass. Recapture could mean death by torture for "the crimes of Ungratefulness and Dishonesty," but she's done waiting for freedom. "Deep down I knew that the slave traders were never going to give up their cash cow," Doris tells us. "It was, after all, one of the most lucrative international businesses ever, involving the large-scale transport of whytes, shipped in our millions from the continent of Europe to the West Japanese Islands, so called because when the 'great' explorer and adventurer Chinua Chikwuemeka was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck." Historical anachronisms along with a weirdly distorted geography contribute to the novel's through-the-looking-glass atmosphere. As a rare literate slave, Doris enjoys a privileged position in her master's house, but she snatches a chance to ride Londolo's Underground Railroad — the city's abandoned subway system — out of the glamorous "Chocolate City" and into the seedy "Vanilla Suburbs." As we follow her perilous escape, Doris tells us how she was abducted from a poor English cabbage farm where she lived with her parents. She describes the gruesome Middle Passage, during which half her fellow captives expire or are murdered; the vicissitudes of the slave market, where traumatized family members are sold off in different directions; and the rape and humiliation that keep whyte people laboring on the sugar cane plantations. This is, in other words, a story whose basic elements we already know from Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Stowe, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison and others whom Evaristo alludes to throughout "Blonde Roots," but even the most colorblind readers will be unsettled by seeing these horrors with the colors reversed. As always, the values of the dominant culture reflect its power structure; the black master's body and attitudes are the desired norm, even the ideal. "Privacy was a foreign concept to all Aphrikans," Doris says. "They said that the Europane need for solitude was further proof of our inferior culture." An expert explains that "over millennia, the capacious skull of the Negroid has been able to accommodate the growth of a very large brain within its structure. This has enabled a highly sophisticated intelligence to evolve." Are you listening, James Watson? Standards of attractiveness are similarly upended. Whyte people try to tan themselves into black beauties, and those who can afford it have surgery to flatten their noses. After giving Doris a proper name — "Omorenomwara" — her African owner expects her to look respectable, which means wearing her straight blonde hair in plaited hoops all over her head and going barefoot. And topless. As a "fully paid up member of the most loathed race in the history of the world," Doris admits that she has "image issues." Every morning she secretly repeats affirmations that some whyte Steve Biko must have preached: "I may be fair and flaxen. I may have slim nostrils and slender lips. I may have oil-rich hair and a non-rotund bottom. I may blush easily, go rubicund in the sun and have covert yet mentally alert blue eyes. Yes, I may be whyte. But I am whyte and I am beautiful!" The daughter of an English mother and a Nigerian father, Evaristo is a poet whose previous three novels were written in verse. This time, although she's writing in the colloquial speech of her narrator, she's still extremely attentive to the function of language, the power of words to shape reality. "Blonde Roots" is spiked with witty cultural references that detail the pervasiveness of racism. As she flees, Doris passes advertisements for "Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner" and "To Sir With Hate." She describes popular minstrel shows in which performers in whyte-face "sang out of tune in reedy voices, their upper lips stiff as they danced with idiotic, jerky movements ... singing music hall songs about being lazy, lying, conniving, cowardly, ignorant, sexually repressed buffoons." Evaristo has even reversed the dialects, forcing us to struggle with the plantation whytes' thick patois the way we have to wade through the Nigger Jim's speech in "Huck Finn": "Sundays him carve tings fe folk in de quarter an don't charge nuttin but just aks to join famlees fer dinner." Trying to cheer themselves, the slaves sing the old spirituals of their homeland: "Shud ole akwaintaince be forget/ An neva bring to mind/ Should ole akwaintance be forget/ An ole lang zine." In the middle of "Blonde Roots," Evaristo drops in a 50-page essay written by Doris' owner, a "modest & truthful" defense of "The True Nature of the Slave Trade." It's a masterful bit of satire, with a sarcastic nod to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Breathtaking in its self-pity, self-justification and self-satisfaction, this faux memoir is full of the scientific rationales, cultural insights and moral gymnastics that buttressed 19th-century slavery and remain handy for justifying 21st-century liberations of less civilized nations. In a moving final section that keeps the excitement pounding till the last page, Doris describes the devastating effects of racism on whyte families: fathers turning violent and oversexed; young men devolving into thugs and ignoring the noble models of their ancestors; women working to death, raising children they know they'll soon lose. The whole story is a riotous, bitter course in the arbitrary nature of our cultural values. Don't be fooled; slavery might have ended 150 years ago, but you've still got time to be enlightened by this bracing novel. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Evaristo wields an imaginative power in Blonde Roots that invites the curious to a whopping 'what if?' of a story." Chicago Sun-Times
"Despite the seriousness of the subject, a lot of that fun rubs off on the reader, too. Evaristo works very close to farce, but none of what she does ever seems nonsensical." San Francisco Chronicle
"Owing to the poetically surreal quality of its prose, Evaristo's deeply political writing is never far from endearing. Blonde Roots jolts the reader into looking at, and in turn learning from, history with new eyes." St. Petersburg Times
"Watch for the smart plays on real-world geography and history; the where-are-they-now notes at the end of the book are not to be missed either. A light entertainment on the surface, but with hidden depths; nicely written." Kirkus Reviews
"Acclaimed British author Evaristo captures and reverses the social dynamics that cause people to adapt and to protect their culture under the oppressive and dehumanizing conditions of slavery." Booklist
"The wide variety of characters, the examinations of image and identity, and Doris's own adventures may make this a popular selection for book groups. Highly recommended." Library Journal
About the Author
Bernardine Evaristo is one of eight siblings born in London to an English mother and a Nigerian father. An award-winning writer, she is the author of three critically acclaimed novels-in-verse, has coedited Granta's New Writing 15, and has written for a wide variety of print, radio, and media including The Guardian, Times (London), BOMB magazine, and the BBC. The recipient of several awards, most recently a NESTA Fellowship Award, Evaristo is a fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Literature as well as of the Royal Society of Arts.
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