I found Middle Passage by Charles Johnson in one of my many sojourns in my local book store. It was written in 1990 and winner of the National Book Award. So far I’ve been able to count on the award winners for consistently interesting, creative writing, and this book was no different.
Middle Passage finds the protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun in New Orleans in 1830. A recently freed slave from the farm lands of Illinois, Calhoun is dodging gangster-like creditors, a spinsterly woman who wants to make a “catch” of him and his own fear of settling. He jumps aboard the Republic to escape his life and ends up on a slave ship to Africa commanded by the deranged Captain Ebenezer Falcon. Rutherford’s life on the ship begins much like the life he left behind in New Orleans. He follows the path of least resistance with no loyalties to anyone or anything. When they land in Africa, Rutherford Calhoun is relieved to get on land and off the claustrophobic ship, but is horrified by his first-hand view of the slave trade. But with much foreboding by everyone on board, the ship gathers its newly bought slaves and cargo and heads back to sea with disastrous results.
Not far into the book you realize that what you are reading is, in fact, the ship’s log from the Republic. Shortly after an uprising on the ship, Rutherford Calhoun takes possession of the ship’s log and describes in detail the circumstances leading him to be on the ship and every aspect of his travails as he tries to safely make it back home. While at sea, Calhoun becomes a provider/protector of a young girl from the Allmuheri tribe, he contends with storms, a mutiny, an uprising, a ship falling apart, disease, and hunger. Rutherford also copes with his inner demons. He describes his past interactions with his father, brother, and the most important woman in his life as he contemplates these relationships and their effect on him.
When I first finished this book, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, probably because it has so many things going on that it’s hard to classify. But looking back on what I read, I appreciate it more. Told through Calhoun’s written narrative, his perspective is often entertaining and funny. Johnson manages to weave together a story about race relations, the horror of the slave trade, an adventure story about survival, experiences that necessarily change everyone they touch, and a fascinating portrait of a character.
(SPOILER!!!) My only slight discomfiture with the characters came at the end of the novel with Rutherford Calhoun’s love interest, Isadora. Rutherford Calhoun’s time at sea forces him to face his life and become a more responsible, caring person, and Isadora changes while he’s away as well. However, Isadora’s transformation only includes her getting thinner from stress and losing some of her prudishness. It bothered me that what it took in the book to make a woman “better” was as simple as making her skinny and more sexual. I could not determine her role besides being a place of comfort for Calhoun, and their reconciliation occurred a little too quickly and with too little explanation for my taste.