A fascinating historical detective story about an abortive 1822 slave insurrection in Charleston, S.C. Little survives in the historical record about Denmark Vesey, the free black who masterminded what could have been the most devastating uprising in American history. We don—t know where this former slave (he bought his freedom and became a prosperous carpenter) was born, the site of his execution and grave, or even what he looked like. In fact, nearly all copies of the chief record of the event, an official report of his trial, were confiscated and burned, being considered too dangerous for slaves to see. Just rumors of the plot terrified Charlestonians, for Vesey and his recruits intended to assassinate the governor and other high elected state officials, torch the city, murder the entire white population, including children, and escape to either Haiti or Africa. The plot was exposed, and by the end of the summer Vesey (who never confessed) and 76 followers were either executed or imprisoned. Despite its failure, the revolt had major consequences. John C. Calhoun, then secretary of war, began building up Charleston’s defenses until by the start of the Civil War it was the most heavily fortified city in the US. Robertson, a novelist (Booth, 1998) and biographer (Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, 1994), deftly teases out tantalizing clues from the testimony without pushing his speculation too far. The book’s most intriguing aspect is his depiction of Vesey (who may have been a Muslim) as a forerunner of Malcolm X in his haughty charisma, his advocacy of black economic independence and Africanism, and his insistence on doing “everything that is necessary” to strike at the whites he held responsible for his people’s degradation. Robertson’s thoughtful chronicle restores to the record a powerful figure whose story continues to challenge America’s vision of itself as a place of equality and harmony. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 1999

ISBN: 0-679-44288-X

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1999

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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