Blonde Roots: A Novel
Blonde Roots begins with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche that partly explains Bernadine Evaristo’s motivation for writing the book:
All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.
Most students of history now realize that it is the story of the victor; oppressed peoples often have that oppression continued through the erasure of their past. In an interview, Evaristo, of mixed English and Nigerian descent, mentions the UK’s lack of acknowledgment of its participation in the slave trade, her Portuguese last name, and migrations endured by her father’s family as evidence of this collusion of language and silence.
Blonde Roots is a novel that sheds new light on the atrocities of the slave trade through two interesting devices. The first and most obvious is the exchange of Africa for Europe. Evaristo’s uncivilized “whytes" are captured by Black slavers with a myriad of technological advantages. This exchange, as Evaristo intends, helps the reader to discover anew some of the ridiculousness of the logic of real-life slave traders.
In a scene that contains many of the book’s more readerly pleasures, protagonist Doris Scagglethorpe’s primary owner, Bwana, makes his first journey to the “grey continent.” His colleague Byakatonda, in the manner of Kurtz in Hearts of Darkness, has gone native in a primordial Eden. Instead of a sweating, starched British man with an unnamed wife, we see a man who has taken to wearing an uncivilized amount of “shit-colored” clothes and has married a savage named Pamela. Bwana, of course, would rather get frost-bite and would never touch a woman without the capacity for language. Details like this seem ridiculous until one considers the historical parallels. Coupled with compelling descriptions of the middle passage, the complicity of locals and neighboring countries, and the condition of Doris’ back after a lifetime of whippings, one feels fresh shock at what once passed for civilization. Readers easily root for Doris and remember the spirituals of American slaves as she is encouraged by others to “wade in the water” and attempt her escape.
A second device that Evaristo employs is the anachronism. While the England of the novel seems to still be struggling through a feudal system complete with armored knights and cabbage farmers, the continent of New Ambossa has guns. This difference can be explained as an attempt to show the reasons for African advancement, ala Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. If one compares lack of clean drinking water in today’s Africa and to the waste of the United States, Evaristo’s world isn’t much of a stretch. Further, British feudal lord and all-around pompous ass Percy has a foreign madwoman in his attic, which, in addition to being delightful, could with other clues place the novel’s setting somewhere in the nineteenth century.
However, Evaristo inserts technologies and references from hundreds of years in the future, and describes her book as “atemporal.” For example, Doris’ first attempt at escape is through an underground railroad that is actually an abandoned tube system, and the Africans delight in their “chocolate cities” surrounded by impoverished vanilla suburbs. I appreciated the intent of this device—Evaristo states that she wanted the novel to take place out of time, so we can see how it is always occurring—but because some markers were in fact deeply rooted in time and current affairs, I found myself searching for a temporal anchor that was not to be found.
In addition to the obvious structures of these devices, some of the internal plotting was contrived. I found myself annoyed by obvious clues as to how and when important characters would reappear. Refreshingly, the ending was organic and realistic. Because of earlier contrivances, I began to lose my fear for Doris’ safety and well-being, but I was happy to learn that she did not, in fact, live happily ever after in an absolute sense.
Ultimately, Blonde Roots is successful, both as a work of fiction—I couldn’t put it down—and as an experiment with political implications. Evaristo humanizes the victims and, in some cases, the perpetrators of the slave trade and gives readers who thought they knew all of the answers about this important piece of world history new questions to think about.