Book Review: Roots by Alex Haley

Photo of the cover of RootsIt may seem unusual to write a book review about a novel written well over thirty years ago, but I do so in hopes of inspiring you to pick up this powerhouse tome once again.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family has climbed to the tippy-top of my all-time favorite books.

For those of you who watched Roots, the blockbuster television mini-series in 1977, but never read the novel, you will be dazzled by the written version, and reminded why you were so mesmerized by Alex Haley’s epic story in the first place. You will also appreciate why it topped The New York Times Best Sellers list for twenty-two weeks, and why Haley was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it.

Why did I pick up this book after so many years? Simple. I was inspired by fellow blogger, Debra Eve, who wrote a compelling profile about Alex Haley on her blog, Late Bloomers. Click here to read her piece and see why I immediately headed to my Kindle to download this 700-page masterpiece.

For starters, did you know the author was a college drop-out who didn’t begin writing Roots until he was 46? And did you know it took him a decade to complete? There’s hope yet for all of us late bloomers!

For those of you who may have forgotten the storyline or who may be too young to have heard it the first time, Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured in The Gambia as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the United States. It follows his life and the lives of his descendants in America all the way down to the author himself.

Haley is a masterful storyteller who develops his characters in such a rich and complex way that he makes it impossible for readers to remain emotionally unattached. His writing makes us want to cry, cheer, hold our breath, pray, scream, and in the end either love or loathe a character.

This riveting novel not only captures the essence of slavery through Haley’s characters and dialogue, but also through his exquisite imagery. His prose encapsulate our greatest weakness as humans—our ability to hurt one another, while also celebrating our greatest strength—our ability to love one another, even in midst of extreme difficulties.

Graphic of Lincoln movie posterMy timing in reading Roots couldn’t be more powerful as I also recently saw Lincoln, which reveals yet another dramatic angle of our country’s dark history, and Abraham Lincoln’s quiet, heroic push to end slavery. I won’t review the movie here, except to say it should not be missed. To learn more about the film, you can check out my fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Cassidy and Nicole Dauenhauer’s review at Femme Fatales (click on the link to read it).

My timing also seems poignant as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked tirelessly to bring equality not only to African-Americans during his short life, but to all Americans. He would have been turning 84 today. Can you imagine all the other things he might have been able to accomplish had he not been assassinated by a bullet filled with hatred and ignorance when he was just 39 years old?

Photo of Martin Luther King Jr.

While our country claims to have moved past the deep wounds of slavery, racism and the Civil War, there’s clearly still a shadow hovering over our nation, particularly in the midst of our current political climate. While we may finally have our first black president, few presidents have ever encountered so many roadblocks during their tenure. And while Texas professes its current bid to secede from the union has nothing to do with the color of Obama’s skin, many have their doubts. Race also still plays a profound role in education, healthcare, economic issues and our justice system.

There are few easy answers, but as we read Roots, see Lincoln, and remember Martin Luther King, Jr. (click here to read my tribute to him from last year), we are reminded that our nation has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. More importantly, we are reminded that we are capable of change, and of greatness. That is when we want greatness for all.

As Dr. King once said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Roots by Alex Haley

  1. Pingback: Saving The World With Books | Davs Art

  2. Thanks for the shout out, Becky! So happy to hear that Root’s publisher has made it available for Kindle and a whole new generation of readers. I had forgotten how young King was when he was assassinated. A poignant reminder…”More importantly, we are reminded that we are capable of change, and of greatness.”

  3. Reviewing a book years after its popularity has dimmed is a little like drinking a aged bottle of wine — especially when it turns out to be even better than you may have expected. I love some of the backstory you give as well — not to mention that mysterious thing called timing that clearly enhances the impact of the book. Have not read it, but ‘masterful storyteller’ is a good as reason as any to make sure I do.

    • Yes! Great analogy. Exactly like drinking an aged bottle of wine. It was divine. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. OMG, Becky, you’ve inspired me! I absolutely LOVED the miniseries. Weren’t all Americans collectively glued to the TV when first it aired? I remember so well, because that was before VCRs and you had to plan on being home to watch. Great series. Now I want to read the book. I did see “Lincoln.” Great film. I learned a lot about the democratic process by seeing this film.

    Great post, nice tie-in to MLK.

    • I had forgotten that Roots aired before anybody owned VCR’s. Looking back, I love that we were all collectively engrossed in the same story at the same time. I don’t think that what ever happen again with all the choices in media and technology. I do hope you read the book, although brace yourself. You won’t ever want to put it down. I learned a lot from Lincoln too. It was also interesting to know little tidbits like Lincoln only had TWO assistants and that it looked as though anybody could just waltz into the White House. My how things have changed in our government (except little has changed). Thanks for your comments, Monica. Great seeing you here. Also, loved your post on Tom K. Wong.

  5. I just listened to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech on NPR this afternoon, and as usual, was moved to tears. We have come so far, but we still have so far to go. Wonderful review–I’m going to put Roots on my list (I’ve never read it!) and going to see Lincoln this weekend! I was also glad to read that Alex Haley wrote this masterpiece so late in life. There’s hope for us all.

    • Every time I hear MLK’s speech I tear up. Fortunately his legacy lives on and continues to inspire us to more forward in the direction of equality for all. I’m so happy to hear you’re going to read Roots! You will LOVE it. I didn’t read the book either, until recently, but I vividly remember being gripped by the mini-series when I was a teenager. The book is brilliant (I guess you might have gathered that from my review). Lincoln is fab too. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by either.

  6. I remember when the mini-series came on. My family watched it. I was about 14 at the time. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how engaging it was and how wrapped up in the characters I got.

    • Sounds like you and I had the same reaction all those years ago (as did millions of others). It’s a powerful story, and one I hope people feel inspired to revisit.

  7. I don’t think you’re a late comer to Roots. You’ve always been a Kunta Kinte fan! :) Are you watching “The Abolitionists” on American Experience on PBS? Very good!

    • Ha ha ha! You are right about that! No, I haven’t seen The Abolitionists, but it sounds like I should. Unfortunately, TV is rarely on in our house. I’ll have to make an effort to check it out.

  8. An exquisite piece of writing, my friend. Like, Elizabeth and you, I wonder “what if?” and remember the “Roots” mini-series like it was yesterday. I’m embarrassed to say that 700 pages of anything would probably take me longer to read than it took Haley to write, but you do tempt me with this wonderful review.

    • Thank you, Jayne. I was intimidated by the idea of reading a 700-page book too, especially in the midst of my crazy, busy life, but reading it on the Kindle made it seem manageable. I got so wrapped up in the story, I was often reading into the wee hours of the night, and before I knew it I was done.

  9. Becky- I am a big baby when I cry about the “what ifs” that might have made this country a better place. what could have Dr King have done if destiny did not turn on him and the millions of his believers. I almost said followers, but those of us who admired the man and his work were more then just that – we were walking right next to him. Roots is an important book for Americans and Alex Haley’s novel should be a must read for everyone. Great review!

    • There are a lot of “what ifs,” but fortunately there are enough people who keep pushing for equality that even though we no longer have MLK with us, his spirit and inspiration still guide us. Change will come, I’m sure of it. Let’s just hope the current political climate becomes more inclusive and less vitriolic. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth, and thanks for your great review of Lincoln!

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