four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
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0

A-Blonde RootsBritish-Nigerian poet Bernardine Evaristo has published three previous novels, all of which were written in verse. This is her first venture into prose.

The Story: In this tale of alternate history, blue-eyed, blonde Doris Scagglethorpe, the 10-year-old daughter of medieval English serfs, is abducted by "Aphrikan" slave traders and transported to the modern island nation of Great Ambossa, where she is sold to a wealthy Ambossan family as a domestic. Renamed Omorenomwara, she grows up despising her "pinched nostrils, pasty skin, greasy hair, pale shifty eyes and flat bottom," traits considered inferior by the black ruling class. When she tries to escape through an old, abandoned subway line, she is recaptured, tortured, and condemned to backbreaking field labor on a sugarcane plantation, where she unexpectedly finds camaraderie and another chance at freedom.
Riverhead. 269 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1594488630

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This timelessness lets Evaristo add social commentary to her scathing satire, and if it can be said a book about slavery is humorous, this one is. … Evaristo wields an imaginative power in Blonde Roots that invites the curious to a whopping ‘what if?’ of a story." Leeann Zouras

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Blonde Roots reimagines past and present with refreshing humour and intelligence. … It’s the message that freedom is the right to choose your own bonds that makes Blonde Roots so human and real, and raises it above the experiment in alternate history that acts as its foundation." Helen Oyeyemi

Observer (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"You find yourself rooting for Doris and her companions on their second escape attempt in a way that you never did during her first, having almost forgotten that these characters, with their dialect and African names, are supposed to be white, their cruel, drunk masters black. It is this that makes Blonde Roots more than just a clever satire on race and achieves what one presumes the author intended: to remind us that ‘us’ and ‘them’ could so easily have been reversed, and that regarding someone as less than fully human is the root of all tyranny." Stephanie Merritt

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Bernardine Evaristo’s sparkling new novel undertakes this project [of rewriting history] on a decidedly epic scale. … The real triumph of Evaristo’s craft is her reimagining of the conventionalities of the slave trade—with the attendant stereotypes of race." Vikram Johri

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"This is … 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. … 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

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Implicit in Evaristo’s decision to craft such a tale is the assumption that many whites remain insufficiently moved by the suffering of black slaves. … Blonde Roots boasts gripping drama and intriguing socio-cultural constructions, but reproduces—almost by necessity—historically documented, and therefore widely available, details of slaves’ lives and the torture they routinely endured." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Evaristo makes all this, Doris’ flight, her re-enslavement and her ultimate struggle to be free, move along with the liveliness of a B movie, though her themes are important—slavery, at its root—and, as you’ve heard, she wields slang and jargon and messes with history with the alacrity of someone having a great time with a great subject. … Evaristo works very close to farce, but none of what she does ever seems nonsensical." Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

Part alternate history and part biting satire, Evaristo’s new novel plays fast and loose with geography, history, language, and culture as it restructures the world in a successful bid to reimagine the institution of slavery. Evaristo also includes several chapters narrated by Doris’s master, who justifies the practice of slavery on pseudoscientific grounds and even congratulates himself on saving the brutal "whyte" heathens from lives of savagery. The world Evaristo creates is wholly foreign, yet bone-chillingly recognizable. The critics were surprised that there could be anything left to say on the subject, but Evaristo’s scathing novel does just that by ripping away readers’ comfort zones and turning stereotypes on their heads. Transcending labels and genres, Blonde Roots is an enthralling, eye-opening story.

Supplemental Reading

Roots The Saga of an American Family | By Alex Haley (1976): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. Spanning 200 years, this groundbreaking historical novel tells the story of 18th-century slave Kunta Kinte, a West African tribesman captured by slave traders while he was gathering wood. The book follows his descendants as they struggle to survive, passing their treasured African heritage from one generation to the next.