Every once in a while you stumble on a book that challenges everything you thought you knew about someone. Alex Haley’s Roots is one such book. I admit I was more familiar with his most famous works such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots than I was with the author of these phenomenal titles.
The little I thought I knew about him was what I gleaned from the latter book and the subsequent miniseries. Adam Henig, the author, presents a succinct and orderly narrative capturing the author’s odyssey conveniently beginning at the threshold of Haley’s fame and success.
That is shortly after the publication of Roots and serialisation of the book into a miniseries. It carries us through his meteoric rise into stardom hobnobbing with his friend Warren Beatty.
Henig recounts Haley’s impressive list of accomplishments and the accolades he garnered on his journey to fame. It is littered with anecdotes and snapshots of impressive scenes Haley encountered in the public eye.
Henig breaks down the records Roots, the book and the miniseries, set and the pandemonium that followed the success of Haley’s work.
Henig states, “Four months after its debut, Roots sold more than eight hundred thousand copies, unheard of for such a short period of time.”
That is still impressive by todays standard. “Roots was a cultural (and financial) phenomenon. It was the first time that many white Americans had read a book from a black perspective.” That was not all.
“Roots most poignant contribution may have been to the study of genealogy.” Haley contributed immensely to American culture. His influence extended beyond the fields of publishing.
Roots was translated into many foreign languages and Haley flew the American flag internationally. His achievements were immense as Henig illustrated:
“Alex Haley had achieved fame and wealth. Hollywood celebrities, foreign dignitaries and the nation’s most powerful leaders lined up to meet him.” He rubbed shoulders with Queen Farah of Iran, President Carter, Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor, etc. He was the “most wanted man in the nation.”
At the peak of his fame, Haley seemed to have it all and nothing could go wrong.
But it did as Henig chronicles. It happened sensationally. Haley sued his publisher and it all went downhill from there on. A reporter for the London Sunday Times embarked on a travel assignment in the Gambia, the country where Haley’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was allegedly captured.
The travel assignment evolved into an exposé highlighting flaws in Haley’s research.
Henig documents in detail the subsequent lawsuits that dogged Haley for plagiarism leading to his fall from grace. He captures Haley’s eccentricities and shortfalls in his personal, public and private life. Apart from the lawsuits, Henig covers Haley’s womanising, strained relationships with his family, his extravagance with his money and all those who manipulated his generosity.
This is the kind of stuff that could well work as a screenplay of Haley’s life.
An Author’s Odyssey is like a missing piece to a jigsaw puzzle. It completes the missing pieces to Alex Haley’s autobiography, i.e., the chapters that were not covered in the main Roots book and miniseries.
Henig’s well researched and referenced narrative raises questions about the authenticity of Haley’s narrative, problems that dogged his ascension to stardom. It is also a lesson for aspiring nonfiction writers to be thorough with their research.
An Author’s Odyssey is an intriguing narrative that is too short. It could bs longer because it is so fascinating. When I first read the ebook, I had to go back and read Roots again. Ironically, Roots the miniseries and the sequel were showing at the same time and I watched them too to find out what I had missed.
I remembered why I enjoyed both the book and the miniseries the first time I ever set eyes on them. Alex Haley was a gifted storyteller. He made both the characters and story believable.
He told stories with such compassion, dignity and humanity. Everyone loves a good story and Haley told us exactly what we wanted to hear.
Watching the miniseries and reading the book again transported me back to the magic that enchanted me when I first watched Roots back in Africa as a young boy. For all his failings, Haley was a force of nature and we would all have been poorer if he had not written Roots.
Henig’s narrative acknowledges the way Roots captured the world’s imagination and Haley’s lasting legacy. It is befitting this short piece of writing fills in the blanks left out of the main narrative captured in Roots and the sequel. In a strange way, Heniq completes Haley’s narrative.
I was left with the feeling that I know Haley better than I did before I read Henig’s – An Author’s Odyssey. It is one of this rare works that surprised me and told me things I didn’t know about Alex Hailey.
Alex Haley’s Roots left me with an appreciation of Haley’s ability to put a human face to one of the greatest tragedies mankind has ever experienced. Those are the rare gems Henig, consciously or unconsciously uncovers. Through his work, I rediscovered Roots.
Armed with this new knowledge, I guess my review of Roots will be quite interesting to say the least. Read Alex Haley’s Roots – An Author’s Odyssey by Adam Henig to gain a deeper understanding of the legacy of Alex Haley.