Tuesday, February 16, 2016

O.o.O.C.: "The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave" by Esteban Montejo

Out of Orbit Critiques are the reviews on books that stray outside my usual genres. The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave is an autobiography, that was penned and slightly edited by Miguel Barnet, as Esteban Montejo couldn't write at the time it was written (but he learned to read shortly after this book was published, as he wanted to make sure it was good).

It's hard to rate and review a book like this, because in all ways, it is well worthy of being read and of great interest to those of us who wonder what life was like in historical Cuba. There is an enormous attention to detail that you won't find in many autobiographies: this book truly brings you the culture of long ago Cuba, along with an absolutely amazing survivor's tale. The only downside is, due to the way this was produced (an oral autobiography written down), you do lose some of the magic and find yourself lost on certain occasions.

Esteban grows up in a hostile environment I'm not sure I would've survived in. He doesn't even know who his parents are, and there is no familial bond to keep him on the plantation, as he was raised by wet nurses. As I read, I was reminded of the dystopian society of Brave New World which I read around this time last year- this autobiography was like that, except Esteban was aware that society in general wasn't in any way beneficial to him. It seemed even from the beginning, he was destined to run away.

The Plot (As Seen on the Back of My Book):
'There were four periods in the life of Esteban Montejo. Born on a plantation in 1860, he was raised as a slave, spent ten years in the Cuban forests as a runaway, returned to the plantation when slavery had been abolished, the returned to the hills to become a revolutionary in the Cuban War for Independence of 1895. His story, told in the wise, humorous voice of a survivor of this vanished world, brings to life with rare simplicity and integrity this crucial period in Cuba's history.'

The most moving part of the book is likely the first part, the chronicle of Esteban's daily life while he was enslaved. It's simply unimaginable the conditions he and others lived under- locked into a dirt-floored shed at night (he called them barracoons) where there were no bathrooms.

In his own words (during one of the times he tried to run away):

But they caught me without a struggle, clapped a pair of shackles on me (I can still feel them when I think back), screwed them up tight and sent me back to work wearing them. You talk about this sort of thing today and people don't believe you, but it happened to me and I have to say so.
            ~Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo, about 20% through

It's during the other sections of his life that you learn more about Cuba's culture as a whole: he tells of the varying religions and magic practices (apparently, you don't mess with the Congolese as they are wickedly talented with their magic), the different dances (some were only for "white" people, as a law), the varying food (there was a chocolate drink with vinegar in it I wanted to try), and how he survived in the forest after having escaped slavery, utilizing different plants to heal his wounds, and avoiding snakes. There is a wealth of culture in this book, but due to the way it was written, you often get lost, or wonder if things are being repeated (because they 'sound' very familiar). If it had been written/told when Esteban was a younger man or the 'writer' had inserted some details to give those of us who don't really know much about Cuba a clearer picture, this book would likely rank higher in my esteem. As it stands, though, you do need to know a little about Cuba or infer it yourself to enjoy reading this book.

The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave is a journey into Cuba's past- and a primer on some of the lost cultures. It is also the story of a man who survived despite the odds being stacked against him, overcoming many things, and teaching us, the readers, many things through the telling of his story. In some ways, this book is flawed, but I have no doubt that he told everything exactly as he saw it, which makes me respect him even more. If you know something about Cuba's history but want to learn more about its historical culture, especially from the perspective of a person of color, I recommend this book for you.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars for a great autobiography set in a culture long passed.

Content: Ages 16+ for some sexual mentions and violence.

Page Count: 223 pages in my paperback edition


  1. I am so glad I ran across your review. I would love to read this book. I also like the fact that you use an age rating. Thanks for taking the time to post about this story. :)

    1. I actually saved this one from my mom's Goodwill donations (I doubt she's ever read it- we both have collecting issues). I was really surprised that more people hadn't read it on Goodreads, but given the political climate between the US and Cuba for the past 50ish years, it makes sense that not many people would read it. Still an excellent read, but I would've rather met the man himself and heard his stories firsthand.
      The Age Rating thingie is mostly a way to warn those who have triggers of what the book has in it. Then I approximate the age I would have been most comfortable reading the book. It's flawed, but it has its perks. :)
      Thanks for stopping by and finding a new read, La La!
      ~Litha Nelle


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