Published May 2017 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: bought for my Nook
Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.
"Sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home."One mother, two daughters who never knew each other and two paths through seven generations on two continents. Effia is forced into marriage with a Englishman in charge of Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast, a port for slave ships. Esi is captured in a raid on her village and and sold into slavery. Through the tribal battles, colonization and then independence of Ghana in Africa and the end of slavery through the Jim Crow South and the jazz years of Harlem, the descendants of Maa'am lives tell the story of the legacy of slavery on both continents. It is an incredible feat of writing made all the more amazing by the fact that, in her debut novel, Gyasi manages to get all of this into just 270 pages.
"The need to call this thing "good" and this thing "bad," this thing "white" and this thing "black," was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else."This is the lesson of Gyasi's story - everything bears the weight of everything else. She doesn't shy away from saying that Africans made it easy for white to "steal" their people into slavery nor that there were people treating people badly and passing judgement on both continents. It is, perhaps, true that Gyasi draws on some stereotypes when she follows the path of Esi's descendants but that didn't particularly bother me; it allowed her to tell stories that opened my eyes to things I either didn't know about or had forgotten about. For example, how easy it was to arrest a black man just so that he could be leased out for hard labor. Or the fact that while Jazz era Harlem was the haven of blacks, it was largely owned by whites and that the whites who traveled into Harlem to visit the jazz clubs were more comfortable if they were filled by lighter-skinned blacks.
One reviewer didn't find the characters to be memorable. I disagree. These characters and what they went through will stay with me for a long time. Ness, who had the strength to get her child to freedom; H, who led coal miners to unionize; Akua, who went mad from visions of a fire woman; and Yaw, who taught his students:
"We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that our, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture."Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama so she has strong roots to draw on for both pieces of the story. Perhaps she might have been better able to flesh out her story had it been longer. But, for me, she managed to pack a lot to think about into a slim novel and encouraged me to continue to seek out books that may be uncomfortable, but important, to read.