James hears word that the Asantes have Governor Charles MacCarthy’s head. The children outside start to sing in celebration, but James warns them that if the Asantes defeat the British, they will come for the Fantes next. He tells them that this village is safe, however, because his family is royal.
James’s storyline begins as the British are moving past their involvement in slavery and trying to take control of the land; the Asantes work against the British, while the Fantes continue to work with them.
James’s father, Quey, returns from the Castle with a white man. He motions to James to join them. The white man explains that Quey’s wife’s (Nana Yaa’s) father, the Asante king, has died, and that the Asantes are blaming the British. When James asks if they did in fact kill him, the white man looks away. James grows angry, knowing that the British had been inciting wars for years in order to buy the captives as slaves from the Fantes and sell them back in Europe.
James explicitly acknowledges an idea that other characters had known implicitly: that by turning the Gold Coast villages against each other and taking advantage of their rivalries, the British only gain slaves, land, and power.
Quey explains that Nana Yaa wants to go to the funeral, but the white man says that it is too dangerous for them to go because the Fantes have been allied to the British for so many years. James and Quey resolve to go anyway.
Now, after years of alliance with the British, Quey and James begin to see the dangers of taking part in a system that pits village against village as they have also helped the British colonists gain power and land.
James holds a gun as he, Quey, and Nana Yaa ride through the forest in a carriage. Nana Yaa and Quey argue about the trip, while James stays silent in the back. He knows that his parents have never loved each other—it was a political marriage.
Much of James’s storyline involves trying to create a better life for himself and his future descendants than the one he inherited from his mother and father, particularly in having a more loving marriage.
After days of travel, they spend the night in Dunkwa with David, a friend of Quey’s from his time in England. When they arrive, Nana Yaa goes immediately to bed, but James, Quey, and David sit and talk. Quey complains about Nana Yaa, and David states that political marriages are often loveless ones. David starts to quote the Bible, but Quey stops him and tells him that he has no use for Christianity. He has chosen the Fantes and their customs. David implies that this life was chosen for him. James thinks about similar criticisms Nana Yaa had made, saying that Quey was weak.
Quey’s conversation with David touches on many social structures: the expectation of Quey’s marriage to Nana Yaa despite the fact that he was interested in men; the colonial influence of Christianity and Quey’s rejection of it in favor of the customs of his mother and his ancestors; and finally, the implication that Quey is weak because Fiifi had provided him with his life’s path, even though Quey had chosen that life in order to appear strong.
David asks if James is going to marry soon, and Quey explains that he has chosen a wife for James to marry. Her name is Amma Atta, the daughter of Abeeku Badu’s successor. This marriage would fulfill the promise that Cobbe had made to Effia; that her blood would be joined with the blood of Fante royals.
Quey’s decision to fulfill Cobbe’s promise demonstrates how potent the idea of marrying to better the family standing still is after three generations, even at the expense of a person’s happiness.
James had known Amma all his life, and the older they got, the more she started to annoy him. By the time he was fifteen, he knew he could never love her, but that didn’t matter.
James knows that it is in some ways a duty for the child to accept the person to whom they had been promised, as had been true of Effia and Quey before him.
David asks Quey if it’s true that the British are going to abolish slavery. Quey shrugs and says that the year James was born, they told everyone in the Castle that the slave trade was abolished, but it continued anyway, and the British stayed. Quey explains that what is happening on the Gold Coast goes beyond slavery: it is a question of who will own the land, the people, and the power.
Quey’s explanation illuminates how the British moved past simply taking part in the slave trade to a full-blown plan for colonization and control of the land and villages around them. Yet what is striking is that the Fantes are still working with the British, likely because of people like Quey who now has family in both sides of the conflict.
The next morning, James, Nana Yaa, and Quey set out once again. They pass little towns and villages, where Quey’s light skin attracts more and more attention. They reach Kumasi and are greeted by Nana Yaa’s eldest brother, Kofi.
Quey’s light skin still places him outside of the norm in the rural villages, as colonization continues to take a more personal toll on him.
The next day, the funeral proceedings begin. Nana Yaa joins the women in the village, mournfully wailing to announce the celebration. There is drumming, dancing, and chanting, and the king’s family is greeted by a long line of mourners.
The funeral proceedings not only demonstrate the immense amount of respect for the king, but also for his family as they represent a way for his life to carry on and for future generations to progress.
One girl (later revealed as Akosua) offers James her condolences, but does not shake his hand, saying that she will not shake the hand of a slaver. James is too stunned to respond, and she leaves. James is baffled: both the Asantes and the Fantes take part in the slave trade—the Asantes capture slaves, and the Fantes trade them. He thinks that if the girl could not shake his hand, she could not touch her own, either.
Akosua causes James to question his own blind faith in a system that both oppresses people and, as the British have introduced it, has racist underpinnings.
The family lays Osei Bonsu to rest. James is supposed to leave in the next few days, but he is intent on finding Akosua. He goes to his cousin and describes her, and his cousin tells James where to find her. When James finds her, she is carrying water on her head back to her hut. He offers to help her, but she refuses, saying that he shouldn’t be doing that kind of work. He walks with her anyway, and the two introduce themselves.
Akosua’s refusal to let James help her with carrying the water—which is work that he “shouldn’t be doing”—could refer to his royal status, but could also refer to his status as a man. Either way, her response relies on rigid social structures that he ultimately feels the need to escape.
James again asks Akosua why she would not shake his hand. She explains that when she was a girl, there was a war between her village and another village, and three of her brothers were taken. She knows that her village does the same thing, but she refuses to be a part of it or accept that it is the only way for the world to function.
Akosua’s story causes James to realize how everyone is hurt by the slave trade (everyone, that is, except for the British). This causes James to want to break free from the slave trade, even though his family is deeply involved in it.
As James listens to Akosua speak, he finds himself incredibly attracted to her. He asks if she is promised to anyone, and she replies that she is not. He thinks about his own wife-to-be and knows that he would never love her; he also knows that his parents would never approve of Akosua, as she “had nothing, and she came from nowhere.”
James starts to question yet another aspect of societal and familial expectations on him: that he should marry to improve the family standing, and should not marry a girl for love.
Thinking this, James remembers the phrase “nothing from nowhere,” and how Effia used to say it on nights that she was saddest. When he was a small boy, he’d spent a weekend with her at the Castle. He’d heard her crying, and when he asked her why, she had told him the story of Baaba.
Effia’s life not only becomes a story to tell her grandson, but also a form of heritage that he uses to shape his own identity. From this story, he formulates a plan to marry Akosua.
James grabs Akosua’s hand and says that he wants to marry her. She asks how she could marry him. He tells her to hide her blood when it comes, and then he’ll come back for her and start a new life in a small village. He asks if she trusts him. She says no, but that he would earn her trust if he came back for her. James thinks to himself that he will find a way.
James uses Effia’s story to find a way that he can prevent Akosua from marrying anyone else. Again, because of the expectations on women, they cannot marry until they are able to have children, as having children and carrying on a family is the primary value of a woman in this society.
Three months after James’s wedding to Amma, they have still not consummated their marriage. James always makes up some excuse like illness, or embarrassment. He knows that she will be blamed for their failure to conceive and feels bad for her, but he wants to remain faithful to Akosua.
The fact that Amma will be blamed for the couple’s infertility (and essentially for James’s infidelity to her) serves as another example of the sexism within the society.
It has been nearly a year since he promised Akosua he would come back for her, and he still does not know how to fulfill that promise. He wants to leave Fanteland, but cannot figure out how to get away.
For James, his family actually becomes a hindrance, because he feels trapped in many ways, and the only way to be able to pursue a life of his choosing is to leave his family behind completely.
Amma tells James he should go to Mampanyin, the apothecary. He agrees to go the next day. His father, Quey, and many others had always called the apothecary a witch doctor. When he goes to her, she criticizes him for not believing in her powers, and for selling slaves. He tells her that that was his father’s work, not his. He says that he no longer wants to do that work.
James’s explanation to Mampanyin reveals how much he has inherited the work of his father and grandfather, but he is the first one to see it as a curse because of its immorality. He, his daughter, and several generations after him will all deal with the fallout of participating in the slave trade.
Mampanyin looks James over, saying that he cannot have a child because he does not want a child. He is startled to see how she has understood him so quickly. He tells her truthfully that he wants to leave Asanteland, marry Akosua, and work as a farmer. Mampanyin says that James already knows how to do this. James, in fact, has already come up with a plan: join the army and pretend to be killed. Mampanyin tells him that the Asantes will be attacking Efutu soon.
James feels he has to separate himself from his family and from what he has inherited (his life, the slave business, his ability not to work at all) so that he can live an honest and guilt-free life going forward.
Back at home, Amma is waiting for James. He tells her that Mampanyin said she must be patient. For a week, James starts to wonder whether his life is really so bad as to want to escape it. He has all but resolved to continue Quey’s work when Effia visits.
One of the difficulties of escaping this colonization is the fact that James must leave his family in order to leave the work, and that he truly does benefit from it and gain an easier life (even if it is at the expense of many others).
One night at dinner, Effia asks James what’s wrong. He tells her quietly that he wants to leave the village. She smiles at him, assuring him that he will find a way to do so. James begins to cry. The next day, James tells his family that he is going back to the Castle with Effia, but he instead goes to Efutu.
James, like Quey before him, has concerns about appearing weak and concerns about trying to make his own way. Effia understands that there is strength in being able to choose one’s own life, instead of letting it be chosen.
James helps a Scottish doctor treat soldiers in Efutu. One night, James hears the call of the Asantes coming to attack the town. He panics and runs, wondering why he had trusted a witch to help him make his life choices. He also wonders, in his fear, why he had thought that he could find a happier marriage than his parents.
For Quey, marriage represented a means of gaining political power, and thus his marriage to Nana Yaa constituted progress. For James, real progress lies in having a happy marriage and a loving family, and that is what he intends to seek out.
James wakes up in the bush of an unknown forest. His body aches. An Asante warrior stands beside him. The warrior is shocked that he is not dead, then quickly recognizes him as Osei Bonsu’s (the Asante king’s) grandson. James makes the warrior promise not to tell anyone that he is alive. For the rest of the month, James travels to Asanteland. He sleeps in caves and hides in trees. When he finally gets to Akosua, she is waiting for him.
It is perhaps ironic that the only reason that James is able to escape his life is because he is recognized through his connection to his family, perhaps demonstrating that there is still privilege in being able to give up everything that a person has inherited in his or her lifetime.