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In the world of Blonde Roots, the people of Aphrika have enslaved people of Europa, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere. The Middle Passage runs from the Cabbage Coast of Europa to New Ambossa and Little Londolo in the West Japanese Islands, and then back to Aphrika, particularly the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa.

Doris Scagglethorpe was kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery; she has since borne several children, all whom have been torn away from her, and is currently trying to escape. While Doris is the main character, the focus is Evaristo's worldbuilding. Europa is the Gray Continent; whytes try to flatten their noses and perm their hair to emulate blak standards of beauty; skience says the prominent jaw of blaks indicates their forward nature while the flatter skulls of whytes indicate smaller brains and less capacity for emotion. "Beating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster."

It's a great concept, and sometimes the way Evaristo turns about tropes is brilliant. I particularly love the way Europa is exoticized and made Other, from cabbages to clothing to religious rituals to superstitious beliefs. The book is set in the past, I think, although there are the occasional mention of skateboards and trains, but it reminds me more of the deliberate anachronisms in The Emperor's Babe. But because it's set in the past, I feel the point might not get through to some readers, that they too will look at things like witch-burning and drawing-and-quartering and corset-wearing to be foreign and Other, and it will be all too easy to miss how those views and cultures shaped the views and cultures we have now.

On the other hand, I really don't know what Evaristo could have done about that, given that when Doris is at home in Europa, there's also a sense of familiarity instead of Otherness for me, probably just because of what I grew up reading. And there are some pitch-perfect moments, like when the whyte slaves sing old songs from their homeland such as "Happy Birthday" (a song once sung to celebrate a child's entrance into the world) and "Auld Lang Syne."

The narrative itself is brutal in parts, but not surprisingly so, given the subject matter, and the ending was actually happier than I thought it would be. I also love Evaristo's voice, which slips between historical and modern (more frequently modern), and is both tongue in cheek and dead serious at the same time. I wish I knew how she did it.

I don't think the concept entirely succeeds, but honestly, this is the best version of the black/white flip that I've seen, and I say that as someone who is not sure the concept will ever entirely succeed (not because of authorial skill, but just because of how difficult it is to Other the familiar and the multiple levels and complications that have to be addressed to not simplify things or to make it so "Oh, anyone can be racist!"). It's a very impressive reconstruction of the institutions of slavery, not just story of one slave.

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April 2014

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