The new verse novel by Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander may be his most ambitious work to date. The resonant title has become almost a generic term to refer to the seaboard exits from the slave-holding forts along the West Coast of Africa, through which slaves were driven to be loaded for the murderous Atlantic crossing. This novel is the first of a trilogy which will take its hero from childhood on the Gold Coast of Africa, to enslavement in the United States and through the American Civil War to Emancipation. Probably the unique strength of the verse novel as a form is the focus and scope it gives to a first-person voice and Alexander makes the most of it here. The first part of the book establishes young Kofi as part of an indigenous culture on which the world of English imperialism is just starting to impinge, through the medium of the village schoolmaster who has been trained at a mission school and is introducing his charges to the English language and to Shakespeare and the Greek classics. These initially alien cultural references lie alongside the traditional tales and songs which Kofi learns from his grandfather. Apart from suffering from the bullying of his overbearing cousin and his heartache for the lovely orphan, Ama, Kofi is living a sweet life, cleverly reconstructed and imagined by Alexander from elements of Asante culture. And if there are speech cadences and inflections that have an African-American flavour, then that, I suspect, makes its own cultural point as well as providing immediacy and familiarity to readers. Kofi’s sweet life ends when Kofi’s idolized elder brother, Kwasi, is blamed for the death of a neighbouring king’s son in a festive wrestling match. Both Kwasi and Kofi are kidnapped: Kwasi to die at the hands of the neighbouring villagers and Kofi to be handed over to local African slave traders. This begins a journey of violence and degradation, which ends at the Door of No Return, where Kofi and his companions are thrown aboard an American slave ship. This is a powerful work which draws much of its power from its portrayal of Kofi’s life among the Asante and Kofi’s restlessly upbeat and curious, if rather innocent, nature. Brought up in a loving family, cocooned in custom and story, and guided by dreams, he is initially non-plussed by his kidnap, believing it might be part of the traditional initiation rite into manhood. He, like the reader, has to learn how cruel the world can be, enduring a very different passage to another world and to manhood.
Historical Note: I admire this book both for its visceral power and the African perspective it provides to African-American and American history. However, I would query its status as ‘historical fiction’. Not for its depiction of the inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade, of course, but whether Kofi would have experienced it in quite this way at the date suggested. I can guess at why Alexander has set it in 1860 because that will enable him to take Kofi to the United States at a crucial time in American and African-American history. However, by 1860, although slavery was still flourishing legally in the USA, the Atlantic slave trade itself had long been declared illegal by both the British and American governments. Both had small squadrons of ships in the Atlantic trying to intercept any slavers who continued the trade, and the British were suppressing it on the Gold Coast. So, an experience like Kofi’s would be unusual, although not impossible, at this late date. And what would be even more unlikely in 1860, would be the involvement of British troops (the ‘Governor’ and the ‘red coats’) and an American warship (‘USS Georgetown’) in the trade, as the novel suggests.