An attempt by a half way educated Kiwi, who reads just a bit, to get his puny mind around the great world of literature!!
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Queen - Alex Haley & David Stevens
I'm actually a bit out of sequence here as I finished this before delving into From here to Eternity. If you haven't read my review on Roots then I hope you do!..and do so before reading this review. Queen is the second of Haley's novels and to understand Roots is to better understand and appreciate Queen.
Alex Haley actually died before finishing Queen and David Stevens wrote much of it. Fortunately he had all of Haley's notes to work from. For me it is difficult to distinguish between Haley's writing and Stevens. Queen is written very much in the style of Roots. Both are nicely written ( for lack of another term ), clear, concise, and hence very readable. I like Haley's writing style as his books, even though flawed, are important works and should be read by all. By making them so accessible Haley has made his works available to a wide spectrum of readers and reading ability.
Maybe with Stevens finishing Queen after Haley's death much of the controversy of Roots was forgotten. As is now well known much of Roots was plagiarised and parts factually incorrect. I think Stevens has taken on board Haley's failings of Roots and produced an end product that was a novel without any pretense of being factual. We may never know how much of Roots and Queen are real, but for their flaws they are both quite brilliant portrayals of slavery in the southern states of America.
Queen is apparently the story of Alex Haley's father and his ancestry. Again how much is fictional and non-fictional will probably never be known. After reading Roots, and finding out about the flaws of that novel, I read Queen with a grain of salt as to its authenticity. I read it purely as a work of historical fiction alone with no factual basis. Unfortunately with Roots Haley sullied his name and his researches became questionable at least. But for all this Roots and Queen are still great works and I believe still very relevant. They both add to what Uncle Tom's Cabin started just before the American Civil War.
Queen covers more in depth what Roots alluded to, especially in regards to children born to black slave woman sired from their white owners. Whereas Roots went into how slaves were caught in Africa and brought to America, Queen has a more specific field in regards to these 'children of the plantations'. Roots is the shameful expose of the slave trade. Queen is the shameful treatment of white men towards the black slave woman and the children they sired. But it also expands into how the Red Indians were forced of their lands to make way for the slave trade.
The book opens with Haley's supposed ancestor in Ireland. As stated the novel must be read with a grain of salt factually. But Haley has been quite clever as he starts with a people who were subjugated by the British. He doesn't dwell too long in Ireland, just long enough to have his character ( James ) pick up his prejudices about the rights and wrongs of what the British were doing to the Catholics. It is clever because this character then moves to America where he quickly encounters the subjugation of the Red Indian. It is well done as a person of one subjugated race sympathises with another and is prepared to deal with them discreetly. He finds out that all he has heard about the Indians is nonsense as they are not heathen savages who kill the white men willy-nilly. He is told that there is a fortune to made out west 'if only you can survive the Indians'.
What he encounters is what he saw in Ireland. A race of people being forced off their ancestral lands, and either having to accept the terms imposed on them, or perish. What he sees initially horrifies him, and yet he realises he can't change anything. But as he settles into his new life and gains wealth his attitudes slowly change. Without realising it he becomes hypocritical towards the plight of the minorities. This comes about after he is abused for asking for help in his store. He is told by a local authority and bully, future president Andrew Jackson, that the job on offer is beneath whites and he must buy himself a slave.
At first he is horrified but he realises if he is too survive financially he must take the advice. He finds he doesn't like the idea of slavery and ownership of another human being. He buys a young boy. This is the start of his downwards slide into unimagined wealth out of the slavery. He treats his slaves moderately well compared to most slave owners, but in all reality he comes to realise he has sold his soul into something evil. He just never gains the ability to tell himself that though. As he struggles with this he cannot fathom why the slaves believe in a god that tells them they have no souls because they are black. He himself believes the 'uppity niggers', or 'jungle bunnies', to be soulless.
The Indians feature in the first half of the novel, but as more and more of their lands are taken from them they fade from the book, and the subjugated become the blacks. I really like how Haley has shown historically how one people were brutalised out of the way to make way for the whites, and how they then made enormous sums of money from those same lands through slavery. It does not make a good indictment of the white Americans of the times. The Indians leave the novel as a defeated people who perish in droves as they are driven further and further westward by the whites onto poor land. The whites then turn around and can't understand why the Indians are dying in such large numbers. They call them lazy when in fact the Indians know the land they have been given is poor and cannot support them. They are a race that had been broken, and had all but given up. It is brutal, harrowing reading, and it must never be forgotten that the Indians suffered just as much from the white man as the blacks did.
This is the first third of the novel. It is well written and to me an accurate, albeit fictionalised, account of the times. The next two thirds of the novel deal with the birth of James son, Jass, and his love affair with the black slave girl Easter. Through this affair Queen is sired. ( It must be noted she was born white. Apparently some children of mixed parentage could look almost like pure white instead of the usual yellow 'mulatto' ). Much of slave life is repeated from Roots, but Haley expands on a particular aspects of slave life, and that is the fate of the children born to mixed races. Many of these children were born to rape victims. An unbelievable amount of black women were raped by there owners, and incredibly the children were even more maligned than the blacks themselves were. Because they were of mixed parentage they weren't welcomed into either society. The whites still saw them as 'niggers', and the blacks didn't want anything to do with them either. They found themselves living in a sort of no man's land.
It was an incredibly sad existence. Haley has superbly put into words what it must have been like to be one of these children in Queen. Her mother does love her but the rest of the slaves tease or ignore her. It is unbelievable that a child who is innocent of her parentage could be treated so. Her father is indifferent and sees her as another slave, albeit one he is more kindly towards. Towards the middle of the book the Civil War erupts. Haley also makes mention of a novel that had stirred up much attention on slavery called Uncle Tom's Cabin. The southern whites can't believe it and call it 'sacrilege'. Apparently the blacks read it too, but this is unlikely as most blacks couldn't read, and in fact it was illegal in most southern states to teach them to. I believe Haley plagiarised, or used it heavily Uncle's Tom Cabin in Roots, but in Queen it is refered to in its historical sense. It was and still remains an important work on slavery.
The Civil War could almost have been lifted straight from Gone With the Wind. There were many similarities that could be coincidence, or they may be not. I'll leave it there instead of calling it plagiarising. The thing here is the slaves becoming aware that their long forred freedom is approaching. We see the plantation fall into disrepair ( Tara??!! ), and the slaves drifting off. Queen has no where to go as the slaves won't take her. She is then told that she will not be taken in by her father's family. She is basically cut off. Her father comes home from the war and tells her as much. From here her life gets worse. She may have her freedom but she is still not accepted into the white or black world. She tries to pass herself of as white but her secret is discovered and she learns to accept herself as ' black', and tells everyone so.
Like Roots, Haley shows how just because the war was over, and the blacks were freed, racism hadn't disappeared. If anything the blacks were even more despised, and none more so than those of mixed blood. Like Gone With the Wind the Ku Klux Klan appears, and the blacks under go terrorising at their hands. It is really interesting reading. So much written about slavery focuses on pre-Civil War events. What is forgotten is the events after the war. Suddenly forty percent of the South's population became free, but they were free without skills or education. It is a social phenomenon that still resonates in America to this day. It is no coincidence that a huge minority of the poor in modern America are black. It stems all the way back to their gaining of freedom without any skills in which to use it.
Queen then is a sweeping saga. Alex Haley writes them well even though he must be taken with a grain of salt historically. In Queen he has expanded on Roots, and included the Red Indians, and the part they played in slavery as their own fate was bound up with that of the slaves. It was their lands that were used for the cotton plantations the blacks toiled on. As one race was subjugated another brought in to replace them. Haley does show that Indians were used as slaves, but they were found to worse than the blacks and hence never used. They also fought back when their land was forcibly taken from them. The blacks had no choice having been brought from Africa. They had no where else to go having no affinity with the land, or country, as did the Indians and whites. Both the blacks and Indians suffered appalling abuses from the whites. Haley doesn't quite say it but in between the lines the reader can hear his bitterness against them. Fair enough I say.
I really like Queen. It is well written and easy to read without being too simple. I read it in two days as I just couldn't put tit down. I only have one criticism and that is the sex scenes. I'm not a prude, far from it!! but I got sick of the sex and Haley's use of them. I didn't really feel they were necessary as such. I understand love and how sex is a part of it, but he went overboard. I threw my hands up in the air in one scene where James withdrew from his wife to sow his 'seed' on the ground to consummate his land....the very land that was robbed from the Indians, and which had been sacred to them. But I did laugh how he says that many slave owners raped black woman because 'once black you never go back'! I think it was more a case of having a convenient, pliable source of 'pussy', that couldn't do a damn thing about being raped. The sex scenes are my only complaint in an other wise fine novel.
So Queen is worth reading. It is of the same quality as Roots and I believe an important novel in bringing the evils of slavery to light in an accessible form. It can be read by people with differing reading abilities. It encompasses racism not just towards blacks, but Indians, and the Irish as well. In fact these races can be inter-changed with any because racism is an evil no matter who it is aimed at. I think with Stevens finishing this novel the faults of Haley in purporting to historical accuracy have been dropped. I think this was a good move, and as I have already stated, I advise reading this as a straight novel even though it has it base in historical events. I find it too much of a stretch that Alex Haley's ancestor came from Ireland and just happened to become friends with Andrew Jackson. It seems to good to be true and probably is. It makes for a good story though!!
A damn fine read, and a good starting point like Roots if you want to understand the slave trade and slavery. It gives a good feel of the times, and the reader can be better prepared to move on to the wealth of non-fiction written on this appalling of events.
An Imperfect God -Henry Wieneck is a good book to read. It is about George Washington and his decision to free his slaves in his will. The book goes into good detail about slavery, particularly that of Virginia, in Washington's era. Much of Roots and Queen can be found it's pages in a genuine historical sense and setting.