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 African-American filmmaker Dash turns her award-winning movie of the same title celebrating the Gullah people of South Carolina into a first novel that's often fascinating but rarely gripping. Unlike most fiction derived from or aiming for the screen, Dash's story is slow-moving and rich in description. In moderation, such qualities are productive, but there's overmuch of a good thing here. Though the lengthy monologues imitate tales told in the legendary fashion of griots, West African storytellers, they too often obstruct rather than advance the narrative. And characters seem more vehicles for cultural commentary than people of flesh and blood. Set in the 1920s, when the old rituals and traditions of African life are dying as the young move away to seek easier lives, the people and the place are described by Amelia, a graduate student raised in Harlem. A descendant of Nan, a former slave and the matriarch of the Peazant clan, who still live on Dawtah Island, she's come to stay with her kin while she collects data for an anthropological thesis she's writing on the Gullahs. And while she does this, she learns family secrets (like why her harsh grandmother Haagar ran away from her abusive father); meets colorful characters and kin (like her Aunt Iona, who defied her mother to marry Julien, a Native American who lives deep within the local swamp); notes how African beliefs and customs are still observed; hears the legend of Ibo Landing, the point from which Ibo slaves started walking back to Africa across the water; and becomes close to her cousin Elizabeth, a healer and teacher. Enough material in hand, Amelia goes back to New York but soon returns to care for her ailing mother. It seems likely she'll stay for good. More docu-fiction than the real thing, but, still, a loving tribute to a distinctive people, exotic place, and now-vanished way of life.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 1997
ISBN: 0-525-94109-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1997