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We skipped January, so Happy New Year! If you need a break from the news (and who doesn't?) lots of good books to choose from. Click the icon above for reviews. And click the book title below if you're moved to buy the book.
By Yaa Gyasi
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
In the late 1700s a pair of half sisters, who don’t know each other, are experiencing opposite floors of the Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, then known as The Gold Coast. Effia, an Asante, lives on the top floor as wife of the castle’s British overlord. She tries not to acknowledge what’s happening in the dungeon, where her Fante half-sister, Esi, is packed literally like a sardine into a cell whose floor is feet deep in human waste. In time, Esi is loaded onto a ship headed for an American slave mart.
Born in Ghana but raised in Alabama, Yaa Gyasi makes use of her dual experience in following Effia’s and Esi’s descendents as they navigate two centuries’ worth of European dominance and vileness on two sides of the Atlantic. On both sides, there is captivity.
The book alternates between Ghana and the U.S., one representative from each of seven generations. This is fascinating but a little frustrating because the book is relatively slim—you feel you’re just getting to know a character when it’s time to move on to the next generation. You never get the chance to sink in. Still, an absorbing read.
Possibly because of her background, Gyasi could be fearless in examining the involvement of Gold Coast tribes in rounding up their enemies for the European slave traders. (Effia’s son, uneasy but complient, follows his father’s lead in rounding up slaves for the castle’s maw.) She finds more fertile ground in the Gold Coast and modern Ghana than in the U.S., where she almost seems to tick off boxes—emancipation, Jim Crow, ghetto life, jazz, the demoralization of African-American men, drugs, fatherless children. The Ghanaian chapters are more character-driven and richer.
The Door of No Return at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana,
which I visited a few years ago. This castle was run by the Dutch,
while nearby Cape Coast Castle was British.
Effia’s great-great-granddaughter Akua, plagued by dreams of a fire woman who has made her burn her own children, takes the necklace to a fetish man to see if there’s any way to undo whatever evil is dogging her family. “. . . Sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home,” she tells her son, Yaw.
“When someone does wrong,” she adds, “whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.”
Although it’s not perfect, I highly recommend this book. It’s heartfelt, talented, and brave, essential qualities in this awful time.
(Dear FCC: I got this book for Christmas and nobody cares if I review it. I’m sure you have better things to concentrate on just now.)