on August 4, 2009
The reviews of this book so far fall into two categories:
1. "Great book! I learned a lot about history of the slave trade, and was gripped by the relentless ups and downs in the life of the main character."
2. "Disappointing book! Characters are drawn poorly, writing is mediocre, no deep philosophical or psychological insight is offered."
I have to agree with both kinds of reviews.
The plot of the book is exciting, and the historical teachings are very full. The main character Aminata Diallo is endowed with many talents and skills in order to make it possible for her to travel into many different situations. These include life as a free African child, abducted prisoner on a slave ship, slave plantation laborer, slave urban bookkeeper, escaped impoverished slave, free administrative assistant, abolitionist spokesperson, mother, wife, friend...and into four different countries. Her very full life enables the author to show us many aspects of the history of the slave trade. The chaotic wartime setting makes the relentless pace of danger and adventure believable. Just learning about the history and the suffering and the bravery can stir up any reader.
The writing is not highbrow. From the very first chapter, when the elder Aminata describes how beautiful her youthful body was, it is obvious that the male author will be looking at the character from the outside rather than really allowing her to speak from the inside. Many metaphors come off as awkward or silly. The dialogue is often standard and doesn't succeed in distinguishing the characters from one another.
As literature about aspects of slavery goes, it's not comparable to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a deep psychological exploration with a philosophical thesis about past, present and future intertwined. It's not comparable to Edward P. Jones "The Known World," a masterpiece of Biblical depth in its restrained revelations about the growth and stunted growth of the human soul. But neither of those books has the goal of teaching readers about an entire century of history. Each has a much smaller historical goal and much bigger literary and psychological goals.
And neither aims to tell us about connections between Canadian, British, and American history at all, which Lawrence Hill does well.
on August 30, 2009
After being educated in one view of history, a new view is welcome. In this case, the view from an African woman taken as a slave in the 1760's, and shipped to the Carolinas. Education is a theme in her life, and serves her well. Taken along to NYC by her owner to act as a secretary, she escapes, disappearing into the underground of negroes in the city. Her skills become invaluable to the British, who hold Manhattan for most of the Revolutionary War. After the British defeat, Loyalists and citizens who worked for the British are allowed to go to Nova Scotia - including the many negroes who served them. The latter half of the book details the many miseries of life in Nova Scotia, and the abolitionists who offer the negroes a new life in Sierra Leone. Altogether fascinating and wrenching, this book gives us 'the rest of the story.'
I have come late to this book simply because I wanted to read it under quieter circumstances. Yes, Hill's novel succeeds in presenting a stirring account of how negro slaves must have endured the horrors and indignities of captivity, from their original abduction in West Africa to their eventual indenturing in America. Yes, Hill does a respectable job in creating a believable main character in Aminata as one of those countless survivors who used their wits, grace, and intelligence to shape the course of history. Her personal story is a compelling one of tragedy, adventure, and eventually victory told in the first person. The reader gets to see what life must have been like for Aminata and her kin in an African village, or travelling in the dank hold of a slaver, or working on a plantation, or being regularly separated from each other and, then to top it off, endure constant physical abuse and racism. As she eventually gains her freedom through some very interesting twists of fate, Aminata becomes immersed in the fight to abolish slavery for good. Being drawn into this mission to save others from the evils of slavery becomes a major fulfillment in her life. No, the book is not real history but rather historical fiction that attempts to create a believable story from the loosely available historical documents on the subject. Like "Roots" before it, "The Book of Negroes" is a good attempt to retell the story of an incredibly brutal journey of a people as encapsulated in the noble actions of one very noble person, but it isn't an ideal replacement for the real record of history. If the truth be known, there were many more Aminata's that made this forced migration such an important part of Canadian history, but unfortunately, they remain nameless in the annals of history.
on January 6, 2010
[Cross-posted to LibraryThing and LivingSocial]
In a CBC interview, Lawrence Hill said the following about the protagonist of this novel:
'It had to be a woman. I believe you locate the story in the shoes of the person who has the most to lose.' ([...])
Aminata Diallo has everything to lose: her parents, her freedom, her innocence, her husband, her children, and many times, she comes to close to losing her life. Aminata is sold into slavery as a child, taken from her village in Africa and shipped to South Carolina to work for an indigo plantation owner. She struggles to make sense of what happened to her and is determined to return to her homeland one day. Through all of the pain, misery, and betrayal, Aminata fights to survive and maintain her dignity. Somehow, she never loses hope even when it appears that there is nothing left to hope for.
Aminata's story is captivating, infuriating, heartbreaking, and uplifting. It is beautifully written; the sections where Aminata reflects on her life in her old age reminded me a little of Joseph Boyden's writing style in that they made me want to slow down and savour every word.
There were two reasons why I didn't end up giving this a perfect 5 star rating. First, the last 100 pages got very repetitive and didn't quite feel as smooth as the rest of the book. And second, while Aminata was amazing and managed to survive so much hardship, sometimes her luck really strained my ability to suspend disbelief.
I will admit that I don't know much about Canadian history when it comes to slavery beyond the Underground Railroad, so this was eye-opening. I was surprised to discover that the Birchtown riots described in the novel actually occurred and were in fact the first race riots in North America. I will definitely be reading more on this subject.
on August 21, 2009
A very well researched novel with a wise & strong protagonist who is captured and sold into the cross Atlantic slave trade as a child and the story carries you through until she in an old woman. I passed it on to my teenage daughter as I felt it was an appropriate and eye opening read for her, quite a change up from vampire love stories.
on August 6, 2009
I received this book as a gift, and am so glad that I did. The Book of Negroes is not necessarily a story I would typically pick up, but I found it to be an incredible story, a real page-turner, and very easy to read. Despite being fiction, it is obvious that the author has done his research, and I came away knowing a lot more about the slave trade and the events of that era that I previously did not know.
Although Aminata faced unspeakable hardships, at times it felt that things worked out a little too perfectly, and that her treatment by others was better than the average, making for an almost *too* perfect story. Nonetheless, it kept me gripped, and I was able to read it in no time!
on March 15, 2014
I could not put this book down. I'm always a bit worried when real history is presented in a fictionalized manner. But I learned so much reading this book. The story is about the main character of African Aminata, including her capture as a girl and lengthy march to the ocean, her horrific crossing of the sea, sale as a slave in America, move to New York, Nova Scotia, Freetown-Sierra Leone, and finally England. The storyline also includes the British Loyalists, American and African slave trade, and a denouement on British abolitionist movement.
That this author could pack so much into a book in such an entertaining and emotional way, is no small feat. I loved the author's writing, very poetic at times. And I was continually amazed at how a male author could write first person of a main female character so well. Aminata is a fresh original female character, one who I whole heartedly accept because she is strong, intelligent and wise.
Sometimes I had to suspend just a little too much disbelief at convenient plot points and despite several losses, Aminata's overall fortune was rather amazing and not at all comparable to the majority of African slaves. Another reviewer said this is more like Roots Lite and I have to agree. But honestly, I would like to learn about history without being re traumatized. I would recommend this book to anyone.
In many historical novels the time period, the setting and the circumstances are coincidental to the main plot; the characters and narrative could easily be transposed to different time periods, settings and circumstances without losing much of the book’s entertainment value. Not so for The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill’s epic novel takes the reader through Aminata Diallo’s heroic life journey from being captured and enslaved when a tween to being an authoritative, admired and respected teacher, storyteller and advocate to end slavery in her later years. In this historical novel history really is the substance that drives the story and Aminata (aka Meena Dee) is the narrator who brings it vividly—painfully and joyfully—to life for the reader. The author was arduously diligent with his research, recreating events that accurately portray the inhumane, cruel and tortuous circumstances to which slaves—and even “freed” Negroes—were subjected.
When I started this book I thought some of its many pages would put me to sleep, but that turned out to be completely wrong. There are no tiresome segments in this book. I wanted to keep reading without stopping, vicariously becoming Meena’s loyal companion through her courageous never-ending struggle to move on with life no matter how hopeless the situations in which she found herself. There was something missing from making this a top-notch book: emotional investment in Aminata’s life. Through its 650 pages there were only two situations that got me to react emotionally. Hill is good at describing everything that happened to Aminata but I thought many of her reactions were too subdued and understated. It was difficult to get under her skin and close to her heart. Or, maybe that was her self-protective cloak to survive all the hostility, hurt and deceit?
From a moral and ethical position “man’s inhumanity to man” is excruciatingly portrayed in this novel. On reflection we have little reason to believe that the barbarity of the past has been overcome and is behind us. Yes, mankind has come a long way toward becoming more civilized in recent centuries but many strata of humanity are still futilely yearning to receive the milk of human kindness. Primitive enclaves, fanatical elements and autocratic regimes continue to practice inhumanity to man and that is in many places the norm rather than the exception. A book like this reminds us that not very long ago civilized “white western culture” perpetrated as much cruel and unjust behaviour as the worst of what much of mankind still has to endure in this the 21st century.
This is a very good book, don't get me wrong. If for some reason it was being overlooked and not being read, then I would be telling you to read it. But lack of readership is not a problem, and in the process this book has been praised somewhat too highly. So let me give you a few not-insignificant negatives to consider:
Mainly, the character of Aminata sounds too modern to my ears. I doubt very much whether a woman in her time with her experiences would really have thought the way Aminata thinks in this novel. This narrative sounds like what would be written by a modern black woman or man travelling back in time, rather than taking you back into that time and space.
Furthermore, she's frankly too angelic. Any other modern novel would be scorned for having a character as too-near perfect as this.
The story is actually surprisingly boring and unmoving in many places - I didn't find myself that emotionally engaged by this novel.
Frankly, if this novel didn't deal with race and with all the abuses connected with it, it probably wouldn't have gotten much attention at all. Yes, this is a good book, but I doubt very much that its the best word on the subject.
on February 25, 2009
Our book club met last night to discuss The Book of Negroes and all but one of us loved and identified strongly with the central character Aminata, and even she said she enjoyed the book but simply wasn't captivated or convinced by it. Everyone felt that learning more about the history of "free" blacks in Nova Scotia had opened our eyes about Canadians' treatment of blacks in this country.
The Hollywood ending, touching though it was, was a disappointment to us. And all of us questioned why such an intelligent woman would insist on venturing back to her home village despite repeated warnings about the very real risks of being re-captured and sold or even killed. Surely that must have outweighed her understandable desire to see her village again. I found this so inexplicable that I began to wonder if, having lost so much by that point, she even had a subconscious death wish. That was the only reason I could come up with to justify such a foolhardy trip to the interior of Africa. There were also occasional anachronisms -- for example, I doubt very much that the expression "Say what?" was used in the 18th century. For most of the book, Hill's writing style sweeps you along and you can't wait to turn the page but events towards the end of the book seem rushed and devoid of the necessary detail and background to make them ring true. Despite these small quibbles, the book dishes up a marvelously engaging central character, important historical information and lots to admire. Enjoy it!