Through his grandmother Makeda, narrator Gray March finds much to love about his African—and his African-American—heritage.
For a time Gray has only known his blind and loving grandmother in her persona as Mattie March, a laundress for white families in Richmond, Va., but it turns out she has great depth to her soul. For one thing, her real name turns out to be Makeda, reflecting an African heritage that goes back generations. For another, she has dream-visions of past life experiences, one of the most notable being her memory as the daughter of Ongnonlou, a 14th-century Dogon priest from Mali. Mattie/Makeda accepts these dreams as a matter of course, and as she spins out her past history to 15-year-old Gray, he becomes fascinated and writes down the details of her life as a Dogon girl. Most startlingly, the Dogon people are skilled astronomers who worship Sirius as well as some smaller, satellite stars…whose existence wasn’t confirmed by astronomers until the late 20th century. (According to Robinson’s postscript, this detailed astronomical knowledge of the Dogon is a mystery that has yet to be resolved.) Gray’s fascination with his grandmother’s story eventually leads him to Mali, and his research confirms the existence of Ongnonlou as well as geographical details of the landscape of which Makeda could obviously have no firsthand knowledge. Makeda also channels other past lives, in one of which she was a Jew and in another a Muslim, but her experience of having been raised Dogon over 500 years before dominates both her life and her grandson’s.
Robinson writes with erudition about strange and wonderful matters.