Catherine E. McKinley – Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World
Length: 236 pages
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.
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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