Thanks to the very popular 1970s miniseries and another newer adaptation (neither of which I've yet seen) as well as the widespread popularity of the book, I knew a lot about this book before I read it. Many plot points were things I had heard talked about when I was a child, or heard referenced since in discussions or in other works. I even already knew the name of the patriarch of the family the book chronicles: Kunta Kinte.
There are some truly striking characters and moving moments throughout this book. Kunta Kinte's stubborn determination to hold on to who he was in the face of kidnapping, slavery, disfigurement, and so much trauma was especially striking. The complicated relationship between Chicken George and his father/owner Tom Lea revealed deep ambiguities and contradictions among the people impacted by slavery (owners and slaves).
The book is eminently readable, with a strong narrative voice and a good sense of scene. In the end, though, it could have been so much better. None of the other narratives is as striking as Kunta Kinte's. And even Kinte's story started to bog down during the part describing his life in Africa before his capture.
All of the female characters are undeveloped, their traumas explored for a moment then never mentioned again (I'm thinking of Kizzy in particular, who was raped repeatedly during her first months at Tom Lea's over and over again, a fact which was never mentioned again as Lea went on to become almost sympathetic in his relationship with the son he fathered in this manner. The story doesn't say the rape stopped or it didn't. It just fails to comment at all.
The long digressions into details of farming, chicken fighting, and blacksmithing detracted from the human story as they fell into minutiae.
If the story had been reined in and tightened, the emotional impact could have been more intense. If the other generations' lead characters were as fully realized as Kinte and the narrative as tightly focused around one character, it would have felt less diffuse. In trying to be everything, the book missed an opportunity to be something and to be that something very well.
The last three chapters, while interesting, didn't belong in the book at all. They were a complete departure in tone and narration and felt more like an epilogue or author's note about the writing of the book. I wish the book ended with "The baby boy, six weeks old, was me" and the rest had been in a separate appendix. "So, thank you" is the proper ending to an acknowledgements page, not this epic multi-generational family story.
I'm still glad I read the book, but there are other books about slavery times that had a much greater impact on me.