MIDDLE PASSAGE by Charles Johnson


Email this review


Like his last novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), this fictional account of a 19th-century slave-ship rebellion bogs down in Johnson's editorializing, much of it inappropriate to the voice of his narrator--a self-described ""crafty Negro"" stowaway who too often speaks like a literary critic, ""deconstructing"" his experiences on the mutinous transatlantic journey. Not that the 22-year-old free bondman from Illinois is by any means an intellectual slouch. In fact, Rutherford Calhoun was well educated by his former owner, and eschewed the life of a ""gentleman of color"" for that of a petty thief in New Orleans, where his debts soon exceeded his income. Rather than marry the smart but unattractive governess who promises to settle his accounts, Calhoun sneaks aboard the slaver Republic, destined for the Guinea coast. There, its infamous captain is to pick up a cargo not only of Africans from the mysterious Allmuseri tribe, but also what turns out to be one of their gods. By avoiding the ""bondage of wedlock,"" Calhoun finds himself in a floating nightmare amidst a motley crew of ""miscreants, dreamers, and fools,"" who stay drunk for the 40-day passage. These ""failures at bourgeois life"" are terrorized by Ebenezer Falcon, their dwarf captain, an educated misanthrope who boasts of his high-seas cruelties. With their cargo aboard, anarchy threatens. First the crew, led by philosophical dilettante First-mate Cringle, plots mutiny, with Calhoun's aid. But the trickster plays double-agent, until plot and counterplot are foiled by an unpredictable slave uprising--unpredictable because these slaves practice a rare martial art that allows them to fight with their leg-irons on. With most of the white crew murdered, the disease-ridden survivors begin their near-impossible passage--which takes them beyond good and evil and into the cannibalistic realm of mere survival. After all, the truly civilized slaves have already been corrupted by the West. Plucked from the wreckage, Calhoun lives to tell this politically correct tale. Johnson wears his research heavily--history's much messier than this too-neat fabrication pretends.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0684855887
Publisher: Atheneum