For almost five millennia, in every culture and in every major
religion, indigo-a blue pigment obtained from the small green leaf of a
parasitic shrub through a complex process that even scientists still
regard as mysterious-has been at the center of turbulent human
Indigo is the story of this precious dye and
its ancient heritage: its relationship to slavery as the "hidden half"
of the transatlantic slave trade, its profound influence on fashion, and
its spiritual significance, which is little recognized but no less
alive today. It is an untold story, brimming with rich, electrifying
tales of those who shaped the course of colonial history and a world
But Indigo is also the story of a personal quest:
Catherine McKinley is the descendant of a clan of Scots who wore indigo
tartan as their virile armor; the kin of several generations of Jewish
"rag traders"; the maternal granddaughter of a Massachusetts textile
factory owner; and the paternal granddaughter of African slaves-her
ancestors were traded along the same Saharan routes as indigo, where a
length of blue cotton could purchase human life. McKinley's journey in
search of beauty and her own history ultimately leads her to a new and
satisfying path, to finally "taste life." With its four-color photo
insert and sumptuous design, Indigo will be as irresistible to look at as it is to read.
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About the Author
She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she has taught
Creative Nonfiction, and a former Fulbright Scholar in Ghana, West
Africa, where she began her research on indigo. She lives in New York
Catherine McKinley is the author of The Book of Sarahs. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she has taught Creative Non-fiction, and a former Fulbright Scholar in Ghana, West Africa, where she began her research on indigo. She lives in New York City.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xiii
Part I Seekers
Chapter 1 An Invitation, Ghana 15
Chapter 2 A Burning Heart, Ghana 50
Chapter 3 Widow's Blues, Ghana 71
Part II Finders
Chapter 4 The Road to Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso 103
Chapter 5 The Chanel of Africa, Ghana 118
Chapter 6 Amazons, Wives of the Gods, and Mama Benz, Ghana/Togo/Benin 130
Chapter 7 Not Everything You Can Own, Ivory Coast 150
Chapter 8 The Beautiful One, Ghana 165
Chapter 9 Mothers of Ash, Nigeria 170
Chapter 10 Blue Gold and Concubines, Niger 194
Chapter 11 Divine Sky, Senegal and New York City 205
Part III The Taste of Life
Chapter 12 It's Never Late, New York City 219
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not at all what I was expecting. Much more a "personal journey" travelogue/story than a history of indigo. I didn't find myself all that interested in Ms. McKinley's travels around Africa, some of which loosely involved research on indigo dyes and cloths.I read an ARC, so I hope the final version contained fewer egregious historical errors, too.
INDIGO was a disappointing read for me as well. Not sure what the author/publishers were seeking to put out here but the end product was a fail. The history and some travel details were interesting but miss McKinley's memoir-esque book as a whole was quite boring & forgettable.
Like other reviewers, I too, was expecting a book about indigo and was also disappointed. This book is not properly marketed!I am a fan of both commodity histories and memoirs, but this book didn't satisfy me on either count. The author is obsessed with indigo and gets a research grant to travel to Africa to study traditional dye methods and patterns. Ms. McKinley tells us very little about what she learned about the history of indigo and its use, even though I am sure she knows about this subject given her research. As a memoir, the book did a bit better, but wasn't very well written. People and places are suddenly mentioned with no context or proper introduction. I found myself unsure as to what country she was in and just who some of the people were. At the end of the book, Ms. McKinley talks about staring her own family and her two young children. This was the best part -- it rang true as she finally seemed able to put together a compelling description of her life as a young mother.
This is the story of the author¿s two-fold quest: to understand the cultural roots of a dye and the cloth it colored, and to understand her own roots in Africa. Her narrative weaves the threads of history and the threads of her life as she pursued this knowledge in the modern world through Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Benin, Niger, and Ivory Coast. The cloth trade, and especially cloth dyed with indigo, was then a source of women¿s economic power. It also had a role in the slave trade ¿ a length of cloth was the price of a human life. Even now, cloth is a powerful part of cultural life in Ghana. I am in awe of the power of this dye in influencing history and shaping our modern world. But the native indigo-dyed cloth is now harder to find, replaced by cheaper European and Asian imports. Much of the real indigo cloth the author found was old cloth, cloth with a personal history for the owner of births, weddings, and deaths; cloth that recalled celebrations and sometimes mourning. Cloth designs have names like ¿Death spoils a house¿, ¿Fine beads don¿t make noise,¿ ¿Capable husband¿, ¿Your foot, my foot¿ or ¿Money flies like a bird¿. An old pattern is ¿Nothing in my hand I bring¿, which during national independence times signified that ¿It takes the whole hand and not single fingers to build a nation,¿ but now recalls the widespread poverty of the people. A design called ¿Good woman¿ was created in honor of Queen Elizabeth¿s visit in the 1960s, and ¿Nkrumah¿s pencil¿ looks like the pen their first Black president used to sign the British away. A finely detailed indigo cloth was called ¿No more velvet¿ from the Nigerian sumptuary imports ban. Another is ¿Holding up the sun,¿ celebrating the strands of tiny beads women wear at the waist. The cloths, and their names, recall national history and personal histories in a nation largely without literacy. The Touareg people wear cloth so deeply indigo-dyed that their skin takes on a bluish hue. It is so much a part of them that they are called the Blue People. They are also nomads, and parts of their history are as entwined with the slave trade as with their trade for cloth and color. They are still nomadic, and the author sees them only briefly, in passing. This is a lyrical, beautifully told story of the author¿s quest for indigo cloth in an exotic local. She brings the sights, smells, and dust of Africa into her words, and the warmth and concern of her ¿Auntie Eurama¿ into the heart of her narrative. This is a book for those who dye ¿ it made me want to return to dye pots I have played with in the past, and learn some of the techniques she alludes to. This is not a book of recipes, it is a book of inspiration. I am inspired.
Summary: Indigo - both the shrub Indigofera and the brilliant blue-dyed cloth it produces - have been extremely valued throughout history. For all that today blue cloth is typically worn as everyday denim, in other cultures, blue cloth is highly prized and is frequently heavily symbolic. In western Africa, indigo has a troubled history, tied as it was to the slave trade, but is still considered as a marker of status and importance. However, the vast majority of blue dyes used nowadays, even for African cloth, are synthetic, and the traditional use of indigo is dying out. McKinley is (self-admittedly) obsessed with the blues of indigo-dyed cloth, and sets off to explore western Africa, looking for the source of the beautiful blues that provoke such intense, almost spiritual reactions from those who see them.Review: I went into this book with some mistaken expectations - expectations that were created in part by my own associations and in part by the marketing/back cover copy - and thus I came out of this book vaguely disappointed. Because Indigo is so similar in topic to Victoria Finlay's Color, I was expecting it to have a similar style as well: journalistic narrative microhistory, I guess you'd call it. Finlay's version of this style is my favorite kind of non-fiction: a blend of historical facts and personal travelogue, blended into a single compelling story, that reads like an extended National Geographic article. Unfortunately, McKinley's Indigo reads more like a memoir than a microhistory, and focuses much more on the physical and metaphysical "search" mentioned in the subtitle than on anything else, including the indigo itself.As a result, I was constantly hunting for facts that I never found. McKinley brings up these tantalizing bits of details without ever explaining them, and I was constantly left asking: Why is a indigo a better source of blue dye than woad or other plants? What is the actual process of starting an indigo dye pot and dyeing cloth? Where else other than East Africa was indigo grown/produced, and how did that production affect the local culture? Despite what the back cover suggests, McKinley's roots in Scotland/jewish rag pickers/South Carolina/botany are only mentioned briefly and their connections to indigo are never explored in detail; even the relationships between indigo and the slave trade which are suggested as being highly influential aren't discussed as thoroughly as they could have been. McKinley does introduce various bits of African history into her personal narrative, but they're not in any clear order, and I had a hard time putting them all into their proper context.However, even if I had treated this book as a memoir rather than a microhistory, it still had a number of issues. McKinley frequently uses unfamiliar terms without defining them, and would occasionally refer to a person by name without having previously introducing them in the narrative. The larger problem, though, was that I never entirely bought her central metaphor about the spiritual power of blue and of indigo. As indigo became the focus of not only her research, but her life, McKinley imbues it with great cosmic significance, but while I get that indigo was important to her, I never entirely understood why, and never felt the "pull" she describes for myself. 2.5 out of 5 stars.Recommendation: My disappointment with the book was largely based on mistaken expectations, so if you go into it expecting a travelogue/memoir about personal growth, you might have better luck than I did. If you want a microhistory about indigo, however, you'd be better off hunting through the bibliography of Color.
This focus of this book was not indigo but rather the search for it; more of a memoir, travel log. As such it did give a feel for modern life in West Africa; the values, sense of spirituality, difficulty of travel, instability. Her attempts at presenting self felt distant and ethereal. It's a quick easy book to read with some return for the effort.
Like other reviewers, I was also disappointed by the disparity between the marketing for this book and the actual content. It is not that Indigo is a bad book, but I was expecting something different than what I got. This is not a detailed natural or cultural history of Indigo. Rather it is a memoir of the author's search for Indigo, interwoven with reflections on her past and identity. I found some of her journey to be interesting, as I have never travelled to Africa before, and her descriptions gave a good sense of the places and people. However I got bogged down in some parts when not much seemed to be happening and sometimes it was hard to motivate myself to keep reading. Overall I didn't find the authors musings on identity to be that interesting.Recommended if you enjoy this type of memoir, but not if you are looking for a book actually about Indigo.
With the good fortune of receiving this as a LibrraryThing Early Reviewer, I had high hopes for this book, expecting to learn more about the history of this exotic color, the countries and people that make it, and the techniques used in its manufacture. Like other reviewers, perhaps I was led astray by expectations from other books, anticipating for a more scientific or historical perspective on Indigo. Instead, the book was primarily an unsatisfying memoir, with too much about the book's author and not enough about its subject. It was quite clear from the beginning of the book that Ms. McKinley had an obsession for African indigo prints. I don't mind books by obsessives about their obsessions, but to draw me in I need to learn about their fixation. I want to see what I can learn from their manic pursuit of what otherwise might be an obscure topic. Unfortunately, McKinley rarely went into great detail about the history of indigo, the process of making it, or any other crucial information that might lead to some understanding of her personal mania. In fact, the first chapter of the book was a lengthy fifty-one page essay about how, after traveling halfway around the world, she was unable to locate indigo. How disappointing for her, and her poor readers.In the end, this book was less the story of Indigo and more the travel memoir of an obsessed New Yorker on an extended shopping spree in Africa courtesy of a Fulbright scholarship. I don't mind a good travel memoir, if I can learn something from another person's travels and travails, or perhaps find some amusement, as with Bill Bryson's excellent travel narratives. Without those key ingredients, travel writing can be an annoying reminder of how little I have traveled, for lack of time and money, something like listening to the rich kids talk about their Christmas larks skiing in Vail. I'm thrilled, Ms. McKinley, that you had the opportunity to travel through Africa shopping for Indigo cloth, but please, the rest of us really don't want to hear about your shopping trip.
After reading the description on the Early Reviewers' page, I thought this book was going to detail the history of the color indigo, which would have been fascinating. After quickly realizing, however, that it was completely about the author's own journey into modern day Africa and had little to no historical information, I was still looking forward to a descriptive tale of life across the ocean. This path was also a let-down. While she does briefly describe some of her experiences, they are lacking... life. The rest is her wandering thoughts about how indigo and cloth are metaphors for all the stages and emotions of life. Perhaps her ideas would have been better represented in verse? Although her prose isn't very poetic. Blah to the extreme.
As many other reviewers have noted, it's extremely important to pay attention to the subtitle, especially the In search of part. This is not, in fact, a history of indigo (and, though the publicity material claimed otherwise, the book itself does not); you will not find a discussion of the botany of the indigo plant itself, the earliest known uses of the dye, its spread throughout Africa, its importance in the slave trade, or other factual material here.What you will find is a memoir of the author's time in West Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, researching a particular type of indigo-dyed cloth. Her research, like the book itself, is somewhat aimless; she meets and befriends a family in Ghana, and the book devotes as much time to their personal lives as to her quest for the fabric; if you're looking for a memoir of personal discovery with a backdrop of West Africa, you're likely to enjoy Indigo, but if you're looking for a microhistory, keep looking.