Book Review: RED A History of the Redhead

Red: A History of The Redhead

When I first heard about the book Red by Jacky Colliss Harvey, I thought it too good to be true. How could there be an entire book about the very thing I was so keen to learn every detail about - myself. And that’s what it was, my seeking, my curiosity, it was not so much a seeking of knowledge but a seeking of self. There was a part of me I knew nothing about, and it was a huge part! There was a part of me that I could see reflected in everyone’s eyes when I met them, walked by them, or even glanced at them. There was a part of me that controlled odd aspects of my body that I couldn’t even explain. And I knew nothing about it. What was fact, what was fiction, what was history? 

I am 70% or more Celtic (thanks ancestry.com). I live in America and my family has as well for about 3 generations. So, unfortunately I am one of those Irish reds that gets all you other reds asked if you’re Irish. Sorry about that. I knew more about my Celtic-ness than I did about my redheadedness, despite them being eternally intertwined. So, when I found out that there was literature on this very topic, I was beyond excited. I ordered Red, and quickly devoured it, finding every page full of new insight and witty prose. Harvey is a skilled writer and brilliant historian. She knows exactly how to relate complex archeological or cultural anthropological data in smooth, digestible ways. Furthermore, she is a redhead herself, so her curiosity is as much personal as it is intellectual. 

Harvey takes us on the journey of the redhead, from before the written word, during the time of coexistence between Man and Neanderthals all the way up to modern Redhead Days. Being redheads, we all know what it is like to be the only one in the room, or even town, but with Red, Harvey not only makes us feel less alone, but she makes us feel understood and fascinated all at once. The history of red hair is a mixed bag, from being traded as slaves, mocked on stage, or over sexualized in paintings and film, redheads have seen it all. In Red, Harvey examines all of these cultural aspects and how they now impact modern society (Jessica Rabbit, anyone?). Painters and artists of all generations use color to tell a story and convey a feeling, and what feelings does the color red elicit in the human mind? Blood, passion, hate, evil, sex, sin, vibrancy, love, rebelliousness, fire. All of the above. 

Not only does Harvey delve into the cultural aspects of red hair, but she also looks into the scientific side of it. Celtics and Vikings are the most recognized peoples to be known for their red and blonde hair and fair features. This is because, according to Harvey, the genetic mutation which causes red hair proliferates fastest in smaller populations of people. That is to say, there is more opportunity for a recessive gene to be expressed, and not diluted by new, unfamiliar genetics, so closed off, isolated groups like the Vikings and Celts was, quite literally, a perfect breeding ground for it. The genetic mutation of red hair doesn’t just cause red hair though, it also means that redheads can manufacture their own vitamin D, and are therefore less likely to suffer from vitamin D disorders such as rickets or bone softening, something unfortunately common before supplements. And up in the colder, cloudier climates where the Celts and Vikings lived, this would mean longer life spans and possibly even heighten the probability of survival through childbirth for women. Stronger bones means stronger pelvises. 

Vikings and Celts are also known for something a little less pleasant, and something that has remained a redhead stereotype to this day - violence. I’ve often been lectured about or been warned about my “redhead temper”, or as my mother used to say “they just can’t sit still, and will always be violent”. Obviously, this isn’t completely true. Just because we have fire on our heads doesn’t necessarily make us hot heads. However, as Harvey astutely points out, the red head gene mutation also allows redheads to access their adrenaline faster than those with other hair colors. Does this mean that we will all have a temper? Absolutely not. But it does mean that our fight or flight responses kick in almost immediately in situations where it would take a little longer for a person with, say, brown hair. I found this revelation fascinating! Though, I am generally a very mild tempered person, I have spent my whole life feeling that surge of adrenaline, making my skin go hot and then cold, and making me feel utterly, deliriously furious in .002 seconds. I have learned to not say anything, take a deep breath and let it dissipate, almost never really acting on it. Now, think about that, coupled with the higher pain tolerance (discussed below), and boom, easy to see a Boudicca or Viking warrior sporting red hair. 

In her book Harvey also points out that it has been scientifically proven redheads have a higher pain tolerance, but are more sensitive to temperature and temperature induced pain. When I learned about this, it was like a weight of wonder had been lifted from my shoulders. I suffer from “chronic intractable pain”, but had never sought help, as I just thought that being in pain all of the time was a normal thing. It wasn’t until a lovely resident at my oncologists told me that it makes no sense why I was not being seen by a pain management team, and then referred me to one, that I started to understand that standing the pain and pushing through wasn’t always necessary. After some tests my doctors were astounded I was working at all (let alone 40+ hours weeks, and being the boss), and immediately tried to reduce my pain. My doctor actually told me that my pain tolerance was a bad thing in this instance, as it kept me from seeking help. Reading about the high pain tolerance according to Harvey was like getting a hug from someone who understood. And that is very rare in my world, because no one seems to ever understand pain. 

Additionally, the information about the temperature sensitivity I found to be both hilarious and oh, so accurate. My body is so sensitive to temperature shifts, I know, to the exact degree, which temps I like and which I do not. As soon as the thermostat shifts to over 71 I find myself hot and uncomfortable, where at 71 precisely I am just fine. Alternatively, my feet never fail in getting painfully cold outside in the winter, no matter how adequate my footwear. 

All these little bits and bobs of information I am sharing don’t even scratch the surface of this fantastic book. It’s more than an introduction to redheadness, it’s required reading. Not only will Jacky Colliss Harvey’s invitingly sharp and delightfully witty prose draw you in from page one, but it will carry you along the ancient and modern history of the redhead, both scientifically and culturally. You will learn about yourself, others, and the entire world, and not just as it relates to your ginge tinge, but as it relates to humanity, and how we relate to each other in turn. This book opened my eyes to things I already knew within my genome, and things I never could have fathomed. It connects us all to something bigger than ourselves, it connects us to each other, and all the other reds who came before us. To say that I highly recommend Red: A History of The Redhead, is a vast understatement. 

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