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Catherine E. McKinley – Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World

June 3, 2011

69. Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World by Catherine E. McKinley (2011)

Length: 236 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started / Finished: 24 May 2011

Where did it come from? From Bloomsbury for review.
Why do I have it? I absolutely loved Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette – it can probably be blamed for the resurgence of my interest in non-fiction – and I thought that Indigo looked similar, if narrower in scope.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 15 May 2011.

Being obsessed with
indigo is not the same
as loving blue jeans.

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 West 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 Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Blue is one of nature’s rarest colors.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 1: “For art and decorative architecture, indigo was a rare, refulgent, and costly material, used to express, as the contemporary Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi says, the “supraterrestrial . . . the path the the infinite.”” – shining brightly; radiant; gleaming
  • p. 23: “In a photo from the 1980s, Eurama stood in a studio, wearing a set of heavy gold jewelry and a blue-black damask boubou with a white pattern resembling the cosmos across the hem and her elaborate headgear.” – a long, loose-fitting, brightly colored garment worn by both sexes in parts of Africa.
  • p. 26: “She seemed possessed, driven by some mimetic force.” – characterized by, exhibiting, or of the nature of imitation or mimicry.
  • p. 108: “She quickly retreated to her house, where she traded her stained work clothing for a blue-and-gold-satin head scarf tied tightly over her head, covered with a white lace miafi that fell over the shoulders of a purple and green-tie-dyed-damask dress.” – ??? obviously some kind of a shawl.
  • p. 113: “Her legs were outstretched, her braided hair was uncovered, gold jewelry glinted from her ears and neck, and she wore a crisp pinstripe blouse and indigo ikat – one tied at her waist, one over her shoulder in the fashion of younger women.” – woven fabrics made by tie-dyeing the warp or weft yarns or both before weaving.

***All quotes are from an ARC and may not reflect the final published text.***

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2011 10:10 am

    Sorry to hear this one didn’t meet with you expectations. I love “Color:A Natural History of the Palette” and have passed it on to friends. I’d forgotten about the bibliography and will have to dig out my copy:)

    • June 6, 2011 9:58 am

      Gavin – Confession time: I haven’t actually pulled out my copy of Color to check the bibliography, but there have to be some good recommendations in there, right?

      • June 6, 2011 8:57 pm

        Yup, it is ten pages of very interesting looking books.

      • June 9, 2011 9:27 am

        Awesome! Time to hit the library. :)

  2. June 3, 2011 2:01 pm

    I’m sure I’ve seen this before. I thought it sounded interesting but your review has definitely set me straight – I’ll be honest, I don’t like self-discovery all that much really. I’ll have to go with Color instead!

    • June 6, 2011 9:59 am

      Meghan – Color is a *fantastic* book, and that’s coming from someone with no prior knowledge/interest in art or art history.

  3. June 3, 2011 3:11 pm

    You are so handy because whenever you don’t like a book you talk about another book you liked better, and then I put that book on my TBR list, instead of the book you are reviewing.

    • June 6, 2011 9:59 am

      Jenny – Heh, glad I’m being helpful. We aim to please. :)

  4. June 3, 2011 6:29 pm

    I did exactly what Jenny did. Indigo: Pass/ Colors: picked up.

    Memoirs of an author’s search rarely resonate with me.

    • June 6, 2011 10:01 am

      Carrie K – I don’t mind a bit of authorial memoir when it’s tossed in the mix with the regular non-fiction, but an entire book of it is definitely not my thing.

  5. June 5, 2011 4:43 pm

    May I recommend Mauve, by Simon Garfield , then, if you haven’t already read it? And A perfect red by Amy Butler Greenfield? Both are the sort of micro-history I (and it sounds like you) enjoy.

    • June 6, 2011 10:01 am

      Bookwyrme – Both of those are already on my wishlist, but it’s good to get confirmation that they’re worth the time!

  6. Lorraine Best permalink
    July 19, 2011 12:11 am

    The cover’s a beauty and the story of indigo is incredible. It’s a plant…it’s a people…it’s a product…it’s legendary! It prompted me to delve into the indigo evolution – a full documentary on the kids who have capacity to discern indigo in the color spectrum and who share an interest in making the world a better place. McKinley has only scratched the surface of the profundity of indigo. A terrific read in the tradition of sister stories, but revealing a true gem of understanding. Reading it was no less than a blessing! Many thanks to Catherine McKinley for sharing her work!

  7. August 3, 2011 12:36 pm

    I read “Indigo” with no expectations, and rather enjoyed it. My wife and daughter lived in Zimbabwe for a year, and my daughter’s research (she is a professor at a Canadian University) is centered in Ghana, so i appreciated the African flavor of McKinley’s experience and the background of the author.

  8. Jenny Balfour-Paul permalink
    September 8, 2011 12:50 pm

    If anyone wants to know about indigo I suggest they consult my book on the subject(very disinegenous of McKinley not to put it in her bibliography since it has been considered the standard work on indigo ever since it was first published in 1998. I also helped Finlay with her indigo chapter in ‘Colour’, as she ackowledges.) ‘Indigo:Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans’ was re-launched this week by British Museum Press. Cellist Yo Yo Ma loves it so that’s a nice recommentation! I don’t really understand the confusing title of McKinley’s book, which is not in fact about the story of indigo – you will find that in my book though – but mainly a personal memoir.

  9. Sunwoo Park permalink
    December 2, 2011 1:07 am

    This is KBS, Korean Broadcast.
    We are now very interested in African Indigo, so we want to know more about it. So we hope you would help us.

    I wonder if there is a place where the indigo dyeing is still being done, and the craftsman!

    Wish you have a wonderful day~!


  1. Indigo by Catherine McKinley « Rash Elvis Chants

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