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Middle Passage 

By Charles Johnson

Original Publisher: Atheneum
(Macmillan Publishing Company)
Current Publisher:
(Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Sherrie Young writes:

For reasons that I don't understand, reading Middle Passage by Charles Johnson kept taking me to scenes of the Wizard of Oz. I never read Lyman Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; I've only seen television and Broadway productions of the story.

Rutherford Calhoun is the main character in Middle Passage. He is a freed former slave from Illinois living in New Orleans. Even though he is a learned man, Rutherford survives as a petty thief and a con man, goes on drinking binges, and sleeps with loose women. It is apparent that he is attracted to Isadora, a proper, cat loving, slightly overweight school teacher, but Rutherford refuses to give up his life to marry her. In order to escape marriage to Isadora, Rutherford stows away on a boat, hoping to sail somewhere to experience life's adventure. Dorothy also wants to escapethe dullness, gray, and dryness of Kansasand not to end up unhappy like her aunt and uncle.

Rutherford quickly finds out he's on a ship called the Republic on its way to the Gulf of Guinea to pick up slaves and bring them back to New Orleans to sell. The entire crew on the ship is running from something.

The head of the ship, Captain Falcon, is a tormented dwarf who rules with an iron fist, wants fortune and fame, and wants to be remembered in history books. The real torment begins after the slaves are picked up on the voyage to New Orleans. A slave revolt takes place, people die, diseases are rampant, cannibalism takes place, people go insane, and no one can be trusted. Even though Rutherford and Dorothy are both experiencing fear, confusion, and the wish that they were back home, reading about the horrors on the ship brings my mind back to the scenes in Oz. Perhaps envisioning the scenes of Dorothy and her crew being attacked by vicious monkeys and forced to work under dire circumstances is an attempt to soften the atrocities and the inhumane acts of what I read in Middle Passage.

Both stories say so much about the illusions of our society and the freedom and disappointments in life; however, the one point that echoes the loudest to me is that Rutherford and Dorothy's experiences lead to self-discovery, which is always a good thing.

Sherrie Young is Director of Marketing at the National Book Foundation.

ISBN: 9780684855882

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Felipe Alfau for Chromos 
  •  Elena Castedo for Paradise 
  • Jessica Hagedorn for Dogeaters
  • Joyce Carol Oates for Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart

Fiction Judges that Year: William Gass, Phillip Lopate, Terry McMillan, Paul West

The Year in Literature:

  • The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Born in 1948, Charles Johnson began his career in the 1960s as a political cartoonist. In 1970, he published a collection of cartoons, and this led to a television series about cartooning on PBS.
  • Johnsons writing career officially began with his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, which was published in 1974.
  • Johnson is also known for having criticized Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which won the National Book Award in 1983) for its negative portrayal of African-American men.

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