“Middle Passage” by Charles Johnson

A high seas adventure I didn’t expect to enjoy.

This is what I love about the library. I can visit, pick up a random book to try, and feel pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it and later buy myself a copy if I choose. If I didn’t like the book, I would be annoyed but not as upset as I would have been if I’d wasted my money on something I didn’t like. Luckily, in this case I liked the book so much that I had to buy myself a copy. This one is a keeper and one I’d love to reread because I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of it as the story had to offer.


Historical fiction



Goodreads summary:

It is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is desperate to escape unscrupulous bill collectors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher. He jumps aboard the first boat leaving New Orleans, the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a daring voyage of horror and self-discovery.

Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and philosophical novel. (Goodreads)

“The whole Middle Passage, you might say, was one long hangover.”

My thoughts:

Middle Passage was a random read. I was browsing the shelves at my local library when the title caught my eye. Curious, I added it to my pile and later checked it out. I didn’t expect a high seas adventure. I didn’t expect it to be engrossing, much less funny. I did not expect to like the protagonist’s voice so much that I’d want to read more stories from his perspective.

Middle Passage is basically composed of Rutherford Calhoun’s journal entries in which he tells us what drove him to stowaway on a slave ship bound for Africa to pick up human cargo. We quickly learn that Calhoun is a small-time criminal, in debt, and is trying to escape the clutches of a woman intent on marrying him and turning him good. Such pressures drove him to sea, to a slave ship and an adventure he’ll never forget. That adventure made for a riveting read that made me blaze through the novella (only 206 pages) in a few days (interrupted by work).

Calhoun is a newly freed slave who was drawn to the glamor of New Orleans’s underbelly. But while a slave in Illinois, he was educated by his master, who hated slavery. Calhoun is intelligent and many — his former master, his brother, and Isadora, the woman intent on marrying him, — believe he is wasting his intelligence being a crook. However, Calhoun relishes the freedom he has to make his own choices about his life, which is why he ran away on a slave ship. His debts were a noose and so too, he thought, Isadora’s proposal to marry him. But aboard the slave ship, he finds himself in a much worse situation that makes him miss Isadora.

It’s Calhoun’s voice that drew me in and kept me reading. He’s intelligent, sarcastic, and funny. That last bit — funny — I didn’t expect in this story. But Calhoun’s observations of other characters and the predicaments he finds himself in sometimes made me chuckle. The writing also made the story appealing. Johnson’s writing isn’t too descriptive, but he packs in much in the 206 pages, and I’m amazed at how much he accomplishes. And though the prose is easy to read, it reminded me of the classics, which I think fits the time it’s set in and the characters, but sometimes terms are used that seemed anachronistic, which would throw me out of the story’s hold.

Then again, considering that Calhoun is narrating the story after his adventure and thus after meeting the Allmuseri’s god, it’s possible that such a unique experience has given him unnatural insight and possibly some foresight. Well, that’s how I rationalize the use of certain terms, like “fantasy” and “spacemen” in the following:

“…a thinker’s brow, it was, the kind fantasy writers put on spacemen far ahead of us in science and philosophy.”

I mean, how else would Calhoun know of such things and use such words to describe Captain Falcon, the dwarf whose ship he stows away on? By the way, the characters are all quite memorable. From Calhoun and his sarcasm to Captain Falcon, who I dislike most of all but who stuck with me long after reading the story because who can forget a dwarf captain who loves to sleep naked but always in his boots because he’s got guns built into them? There’s also the cook, Squibb, who (miraculously to me) survives the journey and becomes the ship’s doctor/surgeon during the terrifying trek across the Atlantic. He cracked me up. Him and his parrot, which would occasionally ask Calhoun, “You had any lately, mate?”

I know a lot of the points the story makes went over my head. When I read it, I was caught up in the story and the adventure and all that was happening to and around Calhoun. It was sometimes difficult to read the sections when the slaves, the Allmuseri, are brought aboard the ship , but even then the story kept my interest because of the mysticism surrounding the Allmuseri and their god and, of course, there’s the excitement and tension regarding the expected mutiny and the fact that the boat is falling apart as it sails the Atlantic. It all kept me at the edge of my seat as I read, and made me a little more fearful about ever taking a cruise and being stuck on a boat where everyone’s sick. It’s one of my nightmares.

I like how the story ends. It seems that Calhoun is a better man by then. One who can be worthy of Isadora. Of course, I bought myself a copy soon after completing it. It’s a story I’d like to reread and, since I consider it a classic, it’s one I think I must own. I highly recommend it.

Overall: ★★★★★

It was great; I was hooked. It’s worth the read.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

And worth the purchase.

Quotes from the book:

“…there’s not a civilized law that holds water once you’ve put to sea.”

“Ain’t the quantity of experiences that count I sometimes think, Illinois, but the quality.”

“Anger, we say, is like the blade of a sword. Very difficult to hold for long without harming oneself.”

“But a champion must keep his dragon alive. It must not disappear, as the skipper did when he slipped his cables. Nay, retired dragon-slayers tended to be as directionless as a soldier after a war.”


17 thoughts on ““Middle Passage” by Charles Johnson

  1. I love wandering library shelves to find books I would never otherwise read. It’s helped me find some of my favorite books! I’ve never heard of this book, but your review makes it sounds so fascinating.


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