• Catherine E. McKinley
  • Bloomsbury
  • 256 pp.

This interesting account of the author’s investigation into the origins and traditions of indigo skillfully combines history and memoir but keeps the reader at arm’s length.

Reviewed by Diana Parsell

Recent years have brought a large crop of narrative books that intertwine such fields as history, economics and sociology in tracing the importance of various commodities though the ages. Mark Kurlansky did it in Salt and Cod. Amy Greenfield Butler did it in her marvelous book A Perfect Red, which tells the absorbing story of how cochineal, an intense red pigment derived from a particular insect, was one of the most coveted products of trade from Aztec Mexico to Old Europe.

Catherine McKinley takes a similarly multi-layered approach in Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World. “Blue is one of nature’s rarest colors,” she explains in her investigation of the rare and valuable pigment that comes from the tiny leaves of a small parasitic shrub (Indigofererearsa). Because of its ability to produce the bluest blues, indigo was a cornerstone of trade in African, Arabic, Asian and European markets. After Eliza Lucas introduced the plant as a crop on a South Carolina plantation in the mid-1700s, it even became a lucrative export in the southern United States on the eve of the American Revolution.

McKinley frontloads her book with interesting facts about indigo’s many uses in art and bodily adornment, mysticism and healing, textile manufacturing, and jazz and blues themes. We know it today as the dye that gave us denim blue jeans. Two centuries ago Goethe’s mention of indigo in The Sorrows of Young Werther sparked a European fashion craze in which young men took to wearing blue coats over yellow pants.

After a panoramic opening chapter, the story shifts to a more personal perspective. Armed with a Fulbright grant, McKinley sets off to study the history and traditions of indigo in nine countries of West Africa, where women long wielded great power as master traders and dyers of indigo cloth. Her journey is both a literal search and a metaphorical journey.

McKinley explains her “obsession” with indigo as an outgrowth of her mixed heritage. An adoptee born of a black father and a Jewish mother descended from Russian and British textile factory owners, she was “raised by WASPs” of Scottish ancestry in an all-white New England community. Rebelling against her parents’ affinity for solitude and wilderness, she sought comfort in the lively Cape Verdean community of nearby Providence, Rhode Island. Later, her introduction to beautiful indigo cloths made by Yoruba women of Ibadan, Nigeria — from powder blue to nearly black, with white hand-drawn motifs as delicate as handwriting — led to a consuming desire to understand them, and perhaps some part of her own legacy.

McKinley writes beautifully, in a style heavy with poetic touches and metaphysical musings, as in this passage reflecting on the symbolic importance of blue cloth in burial rituals of Ghana: “Life and death have exquisite symmetry. The symmetry is held in the color blue. … We are born, we face mortality. What are the mysteries and yearnings in between? Cloth is the portage, the vehicle for the spirit on the irreversible, unsettling march from birth to the grave.” In the first half of the book she skillfully captures the rhythms and dialects of the people she gets to know while passing the days in Accra at a tiny roadside shop run by a charismatic woman named Eurama.

Given these strengths and the inherently fascinating subject, it’s disappointing that the book doesn’t quite work. The biggest flaw is that as a memoirist McKinley never comes across as fully engaged in her own story. In the second half of this relatively small book she drifts from one place to another, checking out reports of famous indigo dyers and cloth makers. But not much happens. The wanderings run together in a blur, and her interactions with various characters seem superficial. Most frustrating, we get little idea of what McKinley takes away from her experiences, other than a pile of traditional indigo cloths. (In one instance, she buys a tagelmust from a Taureg man and stands by as he unwraps the lengthy cloth from his head.) Minor flaws include a failure to explain certain terms (such as repeated references to “woad” in British textile manufacturing) and sometimes inadequate descriptions of the different textiles discussed.

The book ends abruptly with large leaps in time. Within two short final chapters we follow McKinley as she leaves Africa, relates the story of a Malian textile expert at an upscale carpet boutique in Manhattan, becomes the mother of two children, welcomes Eurama to her home in New York City and visits her grandmother on her deathbed.

The author’s terse encounter with her mother after the funeral points starkly to what’s missing in this personal story: more about the conflicts and emotional undercurrents that propelled her journey of self-identity; more about how she came, eventually, to find a measure of contentment.

History, memoir, reportage and travel writing — the elements are all here for a rich reading experience. This book, however, reads as though the author assembled her text largely from field notes of a decade ago and tacked on an ending to bring it up to date.

Diana Parsell, senior editor of the Independent, has a longtime interest in textiles. While living in Indonesia in the late 1990s and working as an editorial contractor in Southeast Asia, she acquired textiles that include batiks and indigo-dyed ikat weavings.

comments powered by Disqus