Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man, living in 1830’s New Orleans. Rutherford is a thief, hustler, and womanizer who has lived a nomadic, vagabond life and somehow stayed out being sold into slavery. Well, there’s a prim and devout woman named Isadora Bailey that is in love with Rutherford and wants to marry him. However, he refuses to marry her and ends up leaving New Orleans via the ship called The Republic.
On the ship, Rutherford learns the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the convoluted relationships between blacks and whites of that time. The captain of the ship, Ebenezer Falcon, is a hard-driving, eccentric disciplinarian that’s hated by his crew. But, he is fond of Rutherford and two men develop a surprising friendship that will eventually test their loyalty to each other and the rest of the crew.
Rutherford gets caught in the middle of a slave rebellion of The Republic which eventually leads to the ship’s demise. He is deeply affected after the outcome of the slave rebellion and begins to examine the true meaning of his life. There is a surprise ending that caught me pleasantly off guard and brings the novel full circle.
Johnson has written an intellectual, philosophical page-turner that is part Moby Dick, part Gulliver’s Travels and part Invisible Man. I can see why Middle Passage received the prestigious National Book Award in 1990 for best novel. It deserves to be mentioned with Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Kindred by Octavia Butler as one of the best novels ever written about slavery.