Indigo by Catherine McKinley


Cover, Indigo by Catherine McKinley

Cover, Indigo by Catherine McKinley

Catherine McKinley’s “Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the Worldis advertised as the story of the rich cultural history of the color indigo, long sought after as the color of royalty and distinction. Instead, the book is a tiring travelogue with an indigo obsessed academic on a shopping trip through Africa.  The exploration of the history, culture, ritual, and romance of indigo is shallow; instead, I winced reading about this young academic trying to bargain for bundles of cloth she didn’t really need, trying her best to live up to the American stereotype of cultural voyeurism with colonial aspirations.

Indigo is not the first book about color that I have read.  Victoria Finlay‘s “Color: Travels Through The Paint Box is a superb book about color, both as travel writing and as a remarkably informative examination of dyes, history, and chemistry of color.  And Simon Garfield‘s “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” takes readers on a historical journey to mid-nineteenth century Britain, where coal, color, and chemistry coalesced in William Perkin’s laboratory to create a color that revolutionized our very concept of color.

These two wonderful books set my expectations high, both well written explorations of the world of color we live in.  Instead of a careful examination of history and culture, McKinley’s narcissism bleeds from every page, as she obsesses over her obsession with indigo.  McKinley says “I hadn’t made this journey simply to be a collector, but I needed indigo in my eye.”  Whatever that means, and she’s off, by chapter two we find McKinley chasing through markets looking for a man to buy cloth from in the city market, with her guides warning her of “witchcraft.”   When her friend and guide says “Blue! Blue!  Is there nothing else in life that matters?…If you are going to spend your money, you could get a cat to feed, or a dog at least.”, I cheer. Well, of course she could get a cat, but you can’t very well get a Fulbright scholarship for feeding a cat.

McKinley narrates the passing of her guide’s husband, but through it all she can’t stop talking about how envious she is of the rich indigo burial cloths.  Then on to Ivory Coast, where she witnesses a funeral procession and she again marvels at the indigo funeral cloth.  We follow in her footsteps as she chases indigo sellers, calculating as she goes how much the cloth would sell for in New York. She bargains and cajoles cloth at every turn.  In Ivory Coast, as the country suffers through a gas shortage, she has her driver traipsing about the country in search of cloth.  She spies bark cloth in a store, where the storekeeper warns “We hide these things.  To make it, you have to take down a whole tree, and it is illegal,” so naturally McKinley asks if she could buy it.  Why are forests deforested?  Because silly Americans want a piece of cloth they have no real need for except to satisfy some unmet psycho-materialist desire.

All this would make a great travel article to read on an airplane, but even at a short 230 pages, McKinley’s story is simply nauseating.  After a while, I found myself hoping that someone would just rip her off, taking all her money for some second-rate cloth.  Or maybe just remind her that it is only a cloth, and not some mystical object to obsess over.  I really longed to hear the other side of each transaction, what the people thought when she walked away with a lighter wallet and a bolt of cloth.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of Indigo gratis, through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program.

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About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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