cover image Mama Flora's Family

Mama Flora's Family

Alex Haley. Scribner Book Company, $25 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-684-83471-9

Somewhere along the line, the late Haley (Roots) or his collaborator Stevens (Queen) made the calculated decision to sacrifice the warm, personal and often sentimental story of a black sharecropper's life for the more global and sensational sweep of roughly three quarters of a century of African American history. And therein lies just one of the failings of this posthumous novel, which traces the Zelig-like descendants of a larger-than-life matriarch, Mama Flora, from 1920 to the present day. After her young husband, a Tennessee sharecropper, is mortally wounded when caught stealing from white landowners, he makes her promise that their son Willie will get an education. But after Willie drops out of school and is temporarily lured to the fleshpots of Chicago, Flora invests all her energy in her sister's orphan, Ruthana. By the time we see the third generation turn either to drugs or to politics (the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam), the novel has lost all sense of proportion and is shipping its characters to every imaginable hot spot in recent African American (or American, or African) history, from HUAC's persecution of the Jewish family for whom Mama Flora works to political repression under Idi Amin. At the same time, Haley and Stevens lose the human touch that animates the novel's first half--the dollar bill sent as a wedding gift, the mother who pretends to be dropping money into the collection plate in order to keep up appearances. As corny and sentimental as the early chapters are, they have something that the latter portion of the novel lacks, and that's credibility. (Oct.)