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5.0 out of 5 stars what a travesty...
Seeing some of these reviews confirms my notion about how the general public will praise crap like "The Da Vinci Code" or brain dead housewives will weep over the terrible "The Lovely Bones" or think pretentious, cliched narratives like "The Time Traveler's Wife" are worth exploring. This was the 1st CJ book I ever read, and from there I have read every one since. His...
Published on June 6 2004 by Crazy2Bhere

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3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but kinda silly
I selected this book partly because it's advertised as being very historically accurate. Sadly, it doesn't seem the case. In fact, it's so inaccurate as far as the thoughts, values and progression of events, that the only explanation I can come up with is that it's an attempt at "magic realism."
The story takes place in 1830, where a young black man, Rutherford...
Published on Dec 18 2003 by Thomas Breit


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5.0 out of 5 stars what a travesty..., June 6 2004
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
Seeing some of these reviews confirms my notion about how the general public will praise crap like "The Da Vinci Code" or brain dead housewives will weep over the terrible "The Lovely Bones" or think pretentious, cliched narratives like "The Time Traveler's Wife" are worth exploring. This was the 1st CJ book I ever read, and from there I have read every one since. His best book is Oxherding Tale, but this comes in as a close second. 1st of all, I must respond to the rather biased nagative reviews claiming "how would an ex-slave speak so intellegently about Kant, etc..." well, the point here is that the "I" being used in the book isn't necessarily Rutheford at that point in time, but perhaps years later, or even after his death. "The Lovely Bones" is an awful book that attempts having a narrator who is dull as s**t speak after she is murdered. The one reviewer commenting about how certain railroads didn't exist until after the Civil War is probably the closest hint yr gonna get to show that this story is being told after his death, or much, much later. It's been a while since I read this book, but the descriptions are poetic and rich, and it's just sad how yet again the cliche is confirmed: take a great book like Middle Passage, and the reviews will be middling good. But take yr average sappy, bathetic Oprah pick, and housewives will be rolling on the floor. If you like real literature, this is for you. But if what you want is crap, then you won't get it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Finding Humor in Tragedy, Jan. 18 2004
By 
Fitzgerald Fan (Troy, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
This book was mandatory for my African American Literature course and I am glad that it was. It is impossible for anyone to imagine today what it would have been like for Africans to be taken from the comfort of their homes to be slaves in America. The only thing we could compare it to is being abducted by aliens if you really think about it. They were overtaken by people who looked very different than they did and who spoke an unknown language. They were put into giant ships of the likes they had never seen and many times, they were branded and always chained below decks. Many thought they were being taken to a foreign land to be eaten and often times the slavers would put slaves in groups with different tribes so that they could not communicate or comfort eachother due to a language barrier. They knew nothing of the world around them as people do today. The concept is, in truth, almost impossible to imagine.
Johnson studied about Middle Passage for something like seventeen years before writing this book, not to mention another six years studying maritime science. To be sure, there are a lot of fantastical occurrences within the book but that is why it is called fiction. I believe he does a phenomenal job with the character of Rutherford Calhoun...he's a liar, gambler, womanizer, and thief but there is something about him that puts the reader on his side. You will find yourself rooting for him all the way through the book.
The novel itself is indeed very graphic in description and includes things such as cannibalism so, if you have a weak stomach, BEWARE. The best things about this novel are its extremely dark humor,its fast pace, and its irony. As an avid reader, there is nothing I appreciate more than someone who can take a horrific experience and make it simultaneously poignant and funny. Not only is this a way of putting a face on the early days of slavery but it is a highly entertaining piece of fiction. I would recommend it to anyone looking for adventure on the high seas!
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3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but kinda silly, Dec 18 2003
By 
Thomas Breit (Shoreline, WA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
I selected this book partly because it's advertised as being very historically accurate. Sadly, it doesn't seem the case. In fact, it's so inaccurate as far as the thoughts, values and progression of events, that the only explanation I can come up with is that it's an attempt at "magic realism."
The story takes place in 1830, where a young black man, Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave turned petty thief, ends up hopping a ship in New Orleans and discovers he's on a slave ship. The whole story is told by this emancipated slave, written into the ship's log by him.
Rutherford is, of course, taught at home by his master before he's freed. But would even a well-taught rural boy think in terms of Kant and Hegel, neoplatonists and the Pseudodionysis? A modern graduate student, perhaps, might people his thoughts like this, but not an 1830's farmboy-turned-thief. A phrase like "post-Christian moonscape" (describing the Captain's cabin after it's been ransacked) sounds perfectly at home in a late-twentieth century fiction, but completely out of place here. He knows all about evolution, before Darwin published, and the "missing link" which is an idea that developed about a century later.
Towards the end of the book, he's out of sorts partly, he thinks, because he's passed through so many time zones. Time zones, however, didn't exist then, they were invented by the American railroads well after the Civil War. And even aside from that, would you notice the changing of time zones in a trip that takes months to cross the Atlantic ocean?
Rutherford is, of course, black. But his brother, also black, has freckles. And, after several months at sea, our hero has somehow grown a beard of old testament length.
The biggest problem, though, is a terribly anachronistic point of view regarding slavery. Rutherford is horrified by the idea of slavery, and the worst part of it all is that one of the powerful black men of New Orleans, is actually smuggling slaves. A black man would own another black man as a slave? Beyond inconceivable! Except, of course, that it happened regularly in the American south, and, in fact, black slaveowners were not known to be particularly gentle. The slaves were fed into the slave trade back in Africa by other blacks, who had no compunction about enslaving fellow Africans. In fact, the leader of the Africans in the Amistad (the real ship, not the Spielberg fantasy) eventually returned to Africa and became a well-to-do slave trader. To a modern eye, of course, the idea of a black man participating in slavery seems nightmarish, but in 1830 America, it was just the way things were.
Of course, the explanation on the back of the book is that he's gone mad, and perhaps all this bizarre inaccuracy and anachronism is an expression of that. Which, I suppose, is a convenient device, but not a very convincing one.
Oddly enough, all these anachronistic thoughts and values are expressed in what sounds, at least to me, fairly well-done period prose.
All that said, the story is fast moving, and entertaining, if you pass through the boilerplate philosophizing. It'd make a good HBO movie, I suppose. If you want a good historical novel, read "Cold Mountain" or anything by Margurite Yourcenaur. If you want magic realism, read Vargos Llosa or García Marquez.
Reading some of the other reviews, I see a suggestion that the whole book was a parody. While I don't think that's accurate, it does make some sense.
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1.0 out of 5 stars THIS won the National Book Award?, June 14 2002
By 
Kevin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
I read this book in a class, and although the teacher who assigned it usually has good judgement, he made a serious mistake in this case. This book is lacking in just about every respect. Except for the protagonist, the characters are mostly boring and one-sided. The plot is contrived in the extreme and relies far too much on improbable coincidences. It is also much too predictable, with an overly pat ending which wrecked any suspension of disbelief I might have retained. Some of the events just don't make sense; for example, the protagonist opens a ship's log at one point and within a short time knows the entire life story of the captain in a high degree of detail. The only really interesting plot element is abandoned without any kind of resolution.
There are also numerous errors in this book. It is laden with glaring anachronisms (which may be intentional, but serve no useful literary purpose) and factual contradictions, and the author is apparently ignorant of the definitions of words like "octave" (a unit of pitch, not volume!) and "iamb" (a type of metrical foot of which "Falcon" is definitely not an example). The way the story is told makes little sense. At first, I thought it was a journal, but realized that it referred to future entries. Eventually it came out that the narrator was retroactively completing a ship's log, but things still don't make sense--even if someone doing that used date-based entries, he would not split one conversation between two entries that were three days apart solely for dramatic effect.
I'll give credit where credit is due--the writing style was sometimes entertaining and the descriptions of the god were interesting. Aside from that, this book is a waste of your time and money. I have no idea why the National Book Foundation would give it any particular notice.
As a side note, the aforementioned English teacher (who will not, I think, be assigning this book again--I am not alone in my opinion) believes that this book is a parody. If it had been presented as one, I might evaluate it differently, but the cover, the blurb, and even the editorial quotes, as well as some of the more serious themes, all indicate that it is intended as a serious work, and I think we should evaluate it that way,
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1.0 out of 5 stars National Book Award?????, March 29 2002
By 
Maurice Williams "mauricewms" (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
It has taken me way too long to finish this novel and I've never been more thrilled to get to the end of a book! "Middle Passage" is the story of a wayward freed slave in 1830's New Orleans. Rutherford stows away, unknowingly, on a ship set for Africa in search of slaves and treasures. After purchasing a tribe of Africans and the God they worship, the ship sets sail for its return to America. The slaves orchestrate a mutiny and take control of the ship. The crew suffers severe injuries at the hands of the rebelling Africans. The ship suffers even worse damage from a storm. The captain kills himself, unable to face his American investors after losing control of his ship and its loot. There's much more killing, and maiming, and flesh eating, and vomiting and bleeding. Then, the weather battered ship sinks but Rutherford and the ship's cook are rescued by a passing boat. They return to New Orleans...
Rutherford tells the story via journal entries. The author stays true to the language of the period, an award winning feat for the writer but dreadfully laborious and dull for this reader. This is the second novel I've read by Charles Johnson and I've concluded that this author just doesn't do it for me. I found the novel required too much effort and didn't provide nearly enough payoff. Can't recommend this one.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Holy baloney, people!, Feb. 14 2002
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
I found this book really intersting, i had to read it for a book report and my teacher happens to know charles johnson. I think that this book is well written, you can really get a feel for what Rutherford is going through, i mean, if that was my only chance and i were him, i would take it in half a heart beat. If you only pay attention to what the events are, and how accurate the dates are, then you miss the whole plot and the beautiful writing that Charles uses. I can understand using and shifting actual events slightly to fit the story, to make it better, as he did. Who cares if Charles Darwin hadn't thought up the 'missing link' yet? or if a slave has been educated? By a minister who feels guilty about owing slaves? or if dime novels hadn't been invented yet? or the hegelian theory or philosify or what not wasn't well known in the 1830s? that shouldn't stop you from enjoying a good book! i would definatly recomend this book, the parallels between this man's life and Odicious (Spelling?) from Homer's Odyssey. It made a surpising but excellent ending. now, i will stop raving to let you read this book!
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Middle Passage as literature, Jan. 21 2002
By 
Reading this text as a part of the African-American literary tradition rather than as an independent work may have given me a different perspective, but I found this to be an intensely felt and intricately structured look, not only at historic slave trafficking, but also at the current and more recent African-American experience. This text is not entirely historically accurate, but that appears to me to be a literary device rather than a failing on Johnson's part. And some of the things that other reviewers found objectionable have an interesting and complex history throughout the African-American literary tradition. An example of this is the inclusion of references to philosophers and classical Greek and Roman culture. Establishing credibilty as a writer, not in the way that white authors do, but in the sense of establishing that one is intelligent and even human enough to write, is something that black authors like Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and countless others went to great pains to do. Wheatley, for example, was interrogated at length by white scholars to establish that she could have authored her works and earn an authenticating letter. It is interesting to me that so many people feel that Johnson failed because he challenged some dearly held literary conventions (not rules). Since when has creative been a liability in fiction writing?
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2.0 out of 5 stars The anachronisms drove me crazy!, March 2 1999
By A Customer
I found a copy of this National Book Award novel at a used book sale and eagerly opened it. I was willing to suspend belief enough to accept the conceit that a slave owner would educate his servant prior to emancipating him. However, the first person narrative by the former slave read like a college professor's memoir. The vocabulary was suitable for an omniscient point of view, but not credible in a so-called journal penned by a roguish former slave. He comments on his circumstances with allusions to Hegelian philosophy (Hegel died in 1831, but his works were known only in Europe for decades after. The time of this novel is set in 1830.) The protagonist refers to the concepts of manifest destiny and the missing link, both of which were unknown in 1830. When he mentions dime novels (did not exist in the nineteenth century) I put the book down in exasperation. I am not a historian, but believe that a moderately educated reader would cringe at a work that is so poorly edited. I am disappointed at the National Book Award committee for this selection.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Middle Passage Falls Short of Its Destination, Sept. 13 1998
This review is from: Middle Passage (Paperback)
Set in 1830, Middle Passage is the story about an educated, freed slave named Rutherford Calhoun. Wishing to escape his debts and a marriage proposal, Calhoun boards the Republic, a ship bound for Africa to illegally pick up slaves. In his capacity, Calhoun is incapable of understanding or relating to the conditions and future life that the slaves, a group of magicians from the heart of Africa, will and do endure. The phrase "middle passage" refers not only to the journey the slaves take from their homeland in the bowels of the ship to America, but also Calhoun's transformation from a self-admitted thief, lier, and womanizer to a humble, broken man, willing to accept home and family as his future. Unfortunately, the transformation, while convincing, falls short with a clumsy attempt at romance in the final chapter of the text. Clocking in at a lean two hundred pages as a combination slave narrative and sea story and the winner of the National Book Award, most of the book was enjoyable, despite extremely graphic representations of bodily illnesses and decay from the long journey, until the end. There, I was left unsatisfied and disappointed.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Historical Fiction? Magical Realism? A Little of Both., Jan. 31 1998
I read Middle Passage over the course of a weekend. This is significant for two reasons: 1)I was to meet Charles Johnson that following Monday and 2) I have a three-year-old and an infant who slowed my reading to a crawl and cut my opportunites to sit down with the book to a minimum. Had I not been so distracted, I would easily have digested Middle Passage in a matter of hours. It is an excellent read. Its protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun, comes off as a latter day Huck Finn, only this time black and educated. The wit and wisdom is very nearly the same.
Despite what other reviewers may have felt, and despite what one may construe as anachronisms within the book, I can attest that such is not the case. I had similar concerns about the novel's historical accuracy and when I finally did have an opportunity to speak with the author, I voiced those concerns. Mr. Johnson assured me of the veracity of virtually every aspect of every detail; he cited the genesis of the scene in which the dead slave is thrown overboard as an example. As an avid (dare I say slavish?) note-taker, Mr. Johnson had apparently done some research for a project having nothing to do with this novel. Indeed, the research notes to which he refers were taken in the early seventies! They came from a police detective friend of his and detailed the effect water had on the human body after death--unusable for the article for which he had originally been researching, but quite useful for the graphic turning point of Middle Passage.
Other evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, proved that Mr. Johnson did indeed have an extensive and authoritative command of American History, the History of the slave trade (made so believable and accurate by the inclusion of the Arabian slave trader in Africa, and by the rounding up of slaves from the African interior--two very historically accurate details),as well as of the ship and her voyage. Thus the exhaustive historical detail is quite effective in the telling of the tale.
One point in which the author and the novel falter lies in the books inability to follow through on its Magical Realist ambitions. Perhaps Mr. Johnson might have included in the dedication an apology to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, most notable and accomplished writer of magical realism. The African god of the Allmuseri is well developed and effectively presented. Its potential for malevolence is a quality keenly felt by this reader and should be noted as an accomplishment on the part of the author. However, the supernatural quality of the unnamed entity deteriorated too quickly into an ineffectual stasis nearly forgotten by author and reader alike; it is only brought back to life to function as a bridge between Rutherford's life at sea and Rutherford's life on land. The problem is that the maneuver is at once clever and contrived and therefore weakened. Mr. Johnson is a clever enough writer. He may simply have gotten too clever for his own good.
Middle Passage is an accomplishment that well represents the National Book Award. It is a well written and finely crafted book worhty of becoming literature. Its foray into the realm of the magical realists is entertaining if only somewhat distracting and should not be considered as a detriment as it does not "undo" anything the author "does". I highly recommend your purchase of Middle Passage.
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Middle Passage
Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnson (Library Binding - July 1998)
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