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Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World Hardcover – May 24, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (May 24, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608195058
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608195053
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #719,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this memoir of longing, community, and personal maturation, McKinley (The Book of Sarahs), half African-American by birth, adopted and raised by white parents who were plant devotees, seeks her roots through the intertwined European and African history of the once rare indigo. A plant dye long prized for its deep blue color, indigo became a staple of trade from Africa across the Mediterranean and Europe; indigo and the fabric dyed from it evoke stories of slavery (past and present), global trade, and entrenched cultural traditions. McKinley's journey to the source of indigo leads her unexpectedly to politically unstable areas like the Ivory Coast, as well as to Ghana, Mali, and other African countries, where she is welcomed. McKinley's passion for the rare blue dye—created from ash, urine, and leaves, and used to painstakingly imprint storytelling designs—leads to intense friendships and an introduction to the complexity of social and economic status in a continent so far removed from the woman who inspired McKinley's journey—her grandmother—a questioning, tartan-clad woman in a rich blue coat. Photo insert; map. (June)


"[McKinley] introduces the reader to a wide cast of characters who slip in and out of the narrative unobtrusively."—Kirkus Reviews

"The sections in which [McKinley] focuses on the history of indigo are fascinating, and some of her vivid descriptions shimmer with an almost cinematic quality." —Ingrid Levin, Library Journal

"Call it blue gold, the devil’s dye, or the cloth of history; indigo is the color that launched the ships and caravans of worldwide commerce. It encompasses the slave trade, the factories of European industry, and the woman-dominated markets of Africa. It binds the blue sails of Columbus’s ships to denim jeans and the exquisite hand-woven fabrics collectors crave. Catherine McKinley follows her passion, her ‘insatiable, desire’ for this beauty and history to Africa. There she enters a complex world—ancient, post-modern, stable and volatile. It demands that she be student, adventurer, aesthete and journalist: she meets these demands with restless intelligence, scrupulous honesty, a love of paradox and a generous exuberance. Indigo haunted her; now it will haunt you."—Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson

"A charming book: ethereal, wise, personal, as well as an imaginative exploration of what this color really might be, when you go under the surface of its just being about blue."—Victoria Finlay, author of Color: A Natural History of the Palette

"Indigo is a journey in every sense of the word, and one undertaken with an engaging passion. It is also, in the words of Miles Davis, Kind of Blue."—Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt

"Catherine McKinley’s Indigo is a moving and lyrical journey through several continents and through the writer’s own internal landscapes. This beautiful and unforgettable book, like indigo itself, reaches deeply into all our lives."—Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying

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Customer Reviews

With all the books to read and the little time we have, I would skip this one.
Stan Prager
Catherine McKinley's search for Indigo is a fascinating personal and professional journey.
M. Grigsby
There are bits and pieces in the book but no comprehensive approach is presented.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By J. Meegan VINE VOICE on June 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I received this book via the Amazon Vine program. It's the no-frills, pre-published edition complete with typos and inexpensive binding. My understanding is the final edition has a map or two + some lovely photos to accompany the story. I certainly could have used both but honestly, this book was so good I didn't really care.

McKinley has taken what might have been a rather dull, dry topic and turned it into something incredibly compelling. However the title of the book is misleading and my sense is perhaps the publisher wasn't really sure how best to categorize it. This isn't just a history of's also a seamless series of travel essays, a memoir, a social, political, and cultural commentary, and lastly -- an unflinching homage to Africa and art. The writing is eloquent and poetic, the descriptions excellent reminder of what good writing looks like. McKinley is incredibly respectful of her subject matter without coming across as stiff...she treats people and places with a quiet dignity and a gentle sense of humor. And she doesn't flinch from depicting the harsh realities of life in Gold Coast Africa, especially for women and children.

I've never been to Africa...and, for the most part, I've never had a burning desire to go. But McKinley has sparked an interest in me, a desire to see for myself some of the things she brought to life in the pages of her book. Even though her primary focus was the Gold Coast areas (with a beautiful glimpse into the Tuareg culture of North Africa) she did an excellent job of giving me a sense of the sheer enormity of the continent and the seemingly rich, infinite sub-strata of languages and cultures that it holds. And the clothes! As someone who's wardrobe consists of black, white, and brown...
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Mo VINE VOICE on June 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Just to be perfectly clear, Catherine McKinley's Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World is only tangentially about indigo. It's a memoir about the author's quest for the elusive blue fabric and her own identity -- both in Africa and America. If you're looking for a natural history of the indigofera plant, or a comprehensive history of indigo from its earliest uses in the Old World, the brief Wiki page is actually more helpful.

McKinley mentions that during wilderness hikes with her parents, she always felt something missing -- the human connection. And that's exactly what you'll find in Indigo: lots of interesting characters, from McKinley's cheerful Ghanaian friend Eurama, to an Ivory Coast potter, to the trokosi, women held in a particularly disturbing form of ritual servitude. Many of the episodes are fascinating in their own right, like the traditional Ghanaian funeral that occupies a good chunk of the book, but are only loosely related to indigo.

This is a bit frustrating if you were expecting a book about, well, indigo. The memoir is organized (mostly) chronologically, based on McKinley's trip to Africa on a Fullbright grant. What information there is about indigo crops up somewhat haphazardly, with some disorienting jumps in time and lots of digressions as McKinley's attempts to locate genuine indigo are frustrated. (By the time she visits Africa, indigo has been almost entirely replaced by synthetic dyes and imported prints, so she spends most of the book on its disappearing trail.)

Once you accept the idea that Indigo isn't really about indigo, it's an interesting enough travelogue through a part of the world I will probably never visit. McKinley has a nice ear for dialogue and brings the people she meets to life.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Phelps Gates VINE VOICE on June 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The blurbs for this book led me to expect a history of technology (perhaps something along the lines of Simon Garfield's book Mauve), or a study of how indigo cultivation and trade affected society in Africa and (later) India, along with the disruptions produced by the introduction of aniline dyes in the 19th century. This is not, however, what the book is about.

The book is actually a very personal account of the author's search for authentic indigo-dyed fabrics, and her description of the important cultural role which these fabrics had (and still have to some extent, especially in the case of the tagelmust of the Tuareg). Her search began with a Fulbright grant to study the tradition of adire tie-dyed fabric in Nigeria (a trip which was, alas, sabotaged by unrest in that country), and continued with repeated trips to Africa over the next decade. The author is not only searching for fabric, but also for African culture and for an understanding of her own multi-racial heritage. The indigo-dying techniques which she looks for are, for the most part, a dying or even completely lost art: as she says at one point, she often felt herself "a tourist of the past." I didn't learn much about indigo, but found the book to be a fascinating description of life and death in Ghana and other West African countries.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By aminasmama on June 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Too many books are straight narrative, numbing pace. After you read them, they are more like a book that was read. And you promptly forget them. Because it's always easier to forget something you read or were told, as opposed to an experience you LIVED.

McKinley's writing in this book is absolutely lovely. Lyrical, LUSH, informative. Reading this book is a multi-sensual experience. Every part of me was involved. And it gave me a lens through which to view so many things that were once ordinary.

The book also provided me with a way to excavate my own travel narratives. I've buried my voyages to Paris and Senegal and Morocco under the murderous recounting of "I went to X." While reading Indigo, I found myself drawn to my journals. The book provided me with a way of re-visiting those momentous experiences and people and share them in a different way. Most importantly, I was drawn to revisit myself and what I was searching for, when I was there.
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