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“Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation” by Robert J. Norrell

12/14/2015, 11:09 p.m.
The gardening catalogs started arriving this week – right on time.

The gardening catalogs started arriving this week – right on time.

In the gray of winter, they represent so much promise, whether you have six acres or six inches of dirt. This time of year, it’s fun to imagine what will come from the soil months from now – but in the meantime, read “Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation” by Robert J. Norrell, and see how a career can grow.

Born in 1921 into a wealthy Irish-African American family, Palmer Alexander Murray Haley was raised mostly by his grandmother, who instilled in him a love of storytelling. As an adult, Haley would recall hiding behind rocking chairs on his grandparents’ front porch, listening to tales of “the African” and of slavery.

In 1939, after rejecting his professorial father’s ideal of an education, Haley (by now, calling himself “Alex”) joined the Coast Guard. Because of racial mores of the time, few onboard jobs were open to African American men, so he worked as a steward while also searching for assignments as a magazine writer. Ultimately, he came under the command of a “boss” who demanded help with letter-writing; his skills honed, Haley landed a job as a press officer for the Coast Guard.

By 1960, Haley left the Coast Guard and a wife, and focused “intensively” on magazine writing. Just two years later, his reputation as an author was set, “linked in part to the growing notoriety of the Nation of Islam (NOI).” An assignment he’d accepted allowed him to become good friends with Malcolm X and they began working closely together on a book, even as Haley simultaneously wrote articles against the NOI.

The process of writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X was long and, for his publisher, frustrating but Haley never forgot stories from his grandmother’s porch. Encouraged by a distant cousin, he toyed with a few versions of them and explored the origins of specific words he remembered. His research was extensive and, by the fall of 1966, he thought he’d found the roots of the stories he’d heard…

And that, of course, is still – almost 40 years later – loaded with controversy: how much of Roots was truth? Was Haley guilty of “borrowing” from others’ works? The answers lie somewhere inside “Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation.”

Indeed, Alex Haley was a complicated writer: time and again, he ignored deadlines and sometimes facts to craft a story. That becomes an important point within this biography: he obviously tested the patience of others in many ways, which is astounding and makes it interesting to see how two of the twentieth-century’s most iconic books came to be. Truth or fiction, those two works, as author Robert J. Norrell proves, absolutely shook up the status quo of culture and history.

Unlike many biographies that portray their subjects as too perfect, “Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation” keeps things real and I liked that. If you’re up for a well-told, warts-and-all bio, this one will have you rooted to your seat.

“Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation” by Robert J. Norrell

c.2015, St. Martin’s Press

$26.99 / $31.50 Canada

251 pages