Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

This book is a fascinating look into the history, mythology, and socio-religious aspects of what it means to be a redhead, backed by science and the popular culture (art, stories, film, etc.) of different eras. The author’s writing style makes it even more so, instantly engaging the audience in the topic. On the whole, it’s a brilliant topic designed to push past the stereotypes and understand how and why they might have come about in the first place.

My only gripe comes early on when Cleopatra is mentioned. This seems to be a touchy subject for many people, as though seemingly every racial and/or regional group out there wants to claim the Queen for their own. Interestingly, the opposite occurs here. The author is quick to dismiss the idea that Cleopatra was very likely a redhead because of her Egyptian origins. It’s as though because Cleopatra lives up to the hurtful stereotypes the author is trying to undermine. The defensive attitude is therefore understandable given the author’s quest here. However, historical fact cannot be dismissed due to inconvenience. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, the product of an incestuous family line from Macedonia. She had not one single drop of Egyptian blood in her, thus negating the author’s rather short argument. It doesn’t prove she was a redhead, but it doesn’t dismiss it either, especially given the science of just how rare the gene is and why it expresses itself. If anything, the case is stronger than ever despite the author’s attempt to gloss it over.

Save for this one tiny exception, the whole of this book is meticulously researched and thoughtfully executed. The author narrates her own work in this audio version, which very rarely works out, but in this case kudos for her clarity and enthusiasm.

4 stars

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