Roots is the result of Haley’s extensive research into the history of his own family. He chose the novel form as the means of presenting his findings because the combination of historical research and fictionalization permitted him to do more than merely present facts about his family’s past. He was able to tell the story of the lives that they lived. The foundation of Roots is the oral tradition through which family stories are passed from one generation to the next, the same process that first caught Haley’s imagination as a youngster hearing tales of long-dead ancestors.
Oral tradition has long been an important means of transmitting family and social histories. This method has been most often used by rural and less-educated societies. Haley chose to present Roots as if it were the result of generations of oral tellings of the events in his family’s history. The significance of the oral tradition lends the novel credibility, as the story of Kunta Kinte, Chicken George, Tom, and Alex Haley would not be as believable if it were told as simply another work of fiction. The fact that the characters were also real people causes the reader to approach the book as if it were a historical work or a biography. Readers often find it easy to forget that Roots is generally a fictional work, which is what Haley intended.
Although the popularity of Roots cannot be denied, its publication did not go uncriticized. Some reviewers attacked it for oversimplifying the period of slavery in American history, while others took Haley to task for his misuse of historical facts. In two cases, he was sued for plagiarizing passages from other writers’ works.