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Middle Passage Hardcover – July 11, 1990
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In this savage parable of the African American experience, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave eking out a living in New Orleans in 1830, hops aboard a square rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, whose master educated him as a humanist, becomes the captain's cabin boy, and though he hates himself for acting as a lackey, he's able to help the African slaves recently taken aboard to stage a revolt before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny. Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award.
From Publishers Weekly
A savage parable of the black experience in America, Johnson's picaresque novel begins in 1830 when Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave eking out a living as a petty thief in New Orleans, hops aboard a square-rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic , no riverboat, turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, a witty narrator conversant with the works of Chaucer and Beethoven and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, hates himself for acting as henchman to the ship's captain, a dwarfish, philosophizing tyrant. Before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny, African slaves recently taken on board stage a successful revolt. Blending confessional, ship's log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism. In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson ( The Sorcerer's Apprentice ) makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
To flee debts and a woman, Calhoun stows away on a ship in New Orleans. He doesn't know the ship is going to Africa to transport slaves back to America.
Calhoun's experiences, as a black man, seeing the treatment of other black men, women and children is poignant. As he gets to know the man chosen to be the slave's "ship leader", Calhoun realizes the kidnapped tribe members are actually superior in many ways.
The writing is excellent. The characters come alive. I could "see and feel" what they were experiencing.
Middle Passage is a book I will read over and over. There are so many lessons and "wow moments" that cannot be realized in just one or two readings.
Calhoun is a character a bit like Crocodile Dundee's black benefactor in New York. Largely innocent of serious evil, but possessing a definite sneakiness. He starts his story in New Orleans.
Isadora is a cultured, mannered black woman of ample size who plans to entrap Calhoun into marriage and change him.
Papa reminds me of Mr. Big from Bond's 'Live and Let Die', which has ties to New Orleans. And Papa has an enormous henchman named Santos, just like Mr. Big. There was a scene where he reminded me of Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld.
Calhoun finds himself being blackmailed into matrimony to Isadora by this mix of characters. Too much. He flees the scene by stowing away on a slaver, unbeknowst as such to him.
The tale that unfolds is dreadful. Neither crew nor slave is spared the atrocities of a gnomish Captain Bligh in the personage of Captain Falcon. And the vagaries of sailing the deeps in the 19th century.
But fear not. This has a storybook ending.
Depending on your own perspective, this can be downright maddening or humorous. How can one make light of the slave trade?
I believe the writing sometimes dragged and sometimes had overlong sentences. But overall it was an enjoyable read.