As cars and RVs line up to pay the $25 entry fee to Arches National Park, I find myself tempted to assume that what’s ahead will be overwrought. Commercialized. Banal. The minimum-effort visitor to Arches (i.e. any rando with a car) can take an 18-mile drive around the park, at the entrance of which sits a quintessential visitor center—part education, part kitsch. I haven’t seen Delicate Arch yet (Arches’ most iconic landmark) and yet I have: on keychains, t-shirts, laminated posters, and lighters—and painted in great detail on a canvas in my Moab, Utah hotel room.
Once inside, a winding road takes me up a rock cliff, which I notice absently, and then with something bordering on panic. All the relevant alarms start to sound in my brain: YOU ARE DRIVING ON A CLIFF! THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF IS RIGHT THERE! And while I know I’m supposed to be feeling some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back exhilaration—I’m here! On my road trip! Seeing natural beauty!—mostly I am terrified. I’ve had a driver’s license for 17 years, but I’ve also seen Final Destination a bunch of times.
Arches’ first viewing area—or first with an actual parking lot—is called Park Avenue. It’s a bowl-shaped valley surrounded on all sides by rock formations, whose names I make up and mentally catalog in lieu of reading the informative signage. Big Mountain Rocks, Tall Skinny Rocks, Rocks Improbably Balanced on Other Rocks. Rocks that Have Been Here a Lot Longer than Me.
A few miles later, I park in a lot overlooking what’s known as the Courthouse Towers (more rocks), letting my shoulders relax as I listen to the tings of the cooling engine. Other than the dull whoosh of passing cars, it’s improbably peaceful here at Moab’s hottest tourist attraction. A few people are taking photos nearby, but everyone is quiet, almost reverential—not a selfie stick in sight. At last, I start to let the exhilaration creep in, allowing myself a flicker of Stella spotting her groove in the distance. I’m here, on my road trip. Seeing natural beauty.
Arches’ narrative, to the extent that national parks have narratives, is one of constant change: The park has the highest density of natural arches in the world—more than 2,000 of them—but at least 43 arches have collapsed since 1977. On average, one falls every year. Which is to say that even rock, our go-to pseudonym for solidity and stability, can’t beat a fatal cocktail of gravity and time.
All the same, it’s hard to imagine the park in flux. It’s a place that seems timeless, evolved only insomuch as land does when left to its own devices. Looking out onto a sea of shrubbery and sandy hills, penned in by massive ridges of red rock, I half expect a dinosaur to appear around the next bend. And it’s almost comforting, to remember that there are places humans haven’t ruined. Also terrifying—to recognize how small, how temporary we are. The past is so very far away, and yet nipping at our heels.
That feeling—of being simultaneously far from and close to history—is the central feeling of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Novel meets short-story collection meets narrative genealogy, Homegoing traces a family from its early roots in Ghana, through slavery and up to present-day America, following divergent family trees set apart by an early tragedy. A representative from each tree, in each generation, gets a chapter in Gyasi’s book, and what emerges is a patchwork portrait of an all-too-common American story, an ensemble-cast demonstration of slavery’s immense, nuanced, and indefinite impact.
In reading Homegoing, it can be frustrating to dip into dozen generations via one character apiece, characters that are themselves just blurs of rising action and inference. Gyasi is keen to keep things moving, and each person’s story gives way to the next almost as soon as you settle into it. But this piecemeal approach also feels appropriate. It evokes the fragmentation of African-American histories caused by slavery, and the startlingly short climb it is up a family tree to come upon those directly affected.
Homegoing isn’t a book about slavery, not in the way of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad or Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. Rather, Gyasi’s is a novel about identity, family, and the unique and often improbable series of events that lead each of us to where and who we are. Maybe most of all, it’s about how easy it can be to lose sight of those events, or to avoid learning about them in the first place. The past is so very far, and yet nipping at our heels. Always look for the dinosaurs around the bend.
AUTHOR: Yaa Gyasi
PAGES: 320 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Random Family meets Roots
FIRST LINE: “The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.