on March 10, 2007
In all the fiction I've read pertaining to that bleak period of African slavery in the Americas, none has left me feeling as hope-filled as "The Book of Negroes" has. It is courageous enough a feat that our Black ancestors survived the indignities of slavery to bring us here today, but it is so very uplifting to read of a character who doesn't merely survive it, but makes it her life's work to change the condition for all slaves.
Although a work of fiction, "The Book of Negroes" reminds us of the dangerous labour of those exceptional real-life heroes - Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, and the countless others who worked tirelessly in the abolitionist movement - who believed that fighting for freedom was worth infinitely more than dying in silence.
What makes "The Book of Negroes" so engaging is the insight we have into Aminata Diallo's childhood in Africa before she is even captured. This sets the tone for the way she sees her condition as a slave - as merely something she must overcome so as to return to the land of her birth. And although she bravely endures the harsh rigors of being owned and debased, there is never a moment when the reader feels this woman will not prevail. Even not having been born into a family of storytellers, she recognizes very soon into her captivity that it is her duty to live, and to record the horror facing her people, knowing she will one day have to give an account.
Lawrence Hill has beautifully captured the voice of this precocious child growing into a wise old woman. We are led to smiles in the midst of indescribable despair as Aminata discovers her world through child-like eyes, and to chuckle with her at Buckingham Palace at the irony of King George III marrying an African queen. Hill also balances his story with conflicted characters like Solomon Lindo, who owns Aminata, but teaches her more than anyone else. These characters encourage us to consider the realities of the time, and the limitations of people, both Black and White, trying to survive with some shred of humanity left intact.
The story is gripping, entertaining and educational, and the gift of four and half pages of additional recommended reading which Hill used in research, makes it very well worth it.
on May 7, 2007
The actual Book of Negroes is an amazing historical document (a British military ledger) that contains the names and descriptions of 3,000 men, women, and children who served or were supported by the British during the American Revolutionary War. Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is a brilliantly imagined novel based on the document of the same name and the events surrounding the relocation of thousands of Black Loyalists to various British colonies and eventually to Sierra Leone after the conflict. Similar in approach to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Hill's offering spans the lifetime of the fictional Aminata (Meena) Diallo, an African born woman who escaped to freedom.
At the beginning of the novel Meena is in London, an old woman who has lived a tumultuous life. At the urging of her abolitionist sponsors, she is asked to pen her story which would be used as evidence depicting the cruelty and inhumanity of the slave trade. Meena, an intelligent, educated woman, authors her autobiography via vivid flashbacks through time. She writes, "Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary." She continues and details her life as a young child in an African village, her capture and Middle Passage crossing, enslavement while in America, relocation to Nova Scotia, return to Africa (Freetown, Sierra Leone), and partnering with abolitionists in England.
However to summarize the book in such a way is a huge understatement - it is steeped in historical facts that educate and enlighten the reader; I was pulled in immediately after reading the opening passages. Before her capture, African spirituality/religion, education (Meena's father taught her to read and write, her mother taught her midwifery), family structure, and culture are illustrated in her interactions with her parents and other villagers. After witnessing her parent's murder at the hands of African slavers, she is coffled and mournfully treks through the African interior for months before arriving exhausted at the coastal slave port. Meena transcribed the inhumanity of the trade, the stifling stench and horrid conditions aboard the slave ship, the rapes and attempted revolts that occurred during the crossing, and the shameful and dehumanizing experience on the auction block. She suffers hardships in America at an indigo producing plantation in South Carolina. She experiences the love and loss of a husband and children. Unwilling to work after the abrupt sale of her son, she is eventually sold to a new owner and escapes to freedom while in New York. Once there, she is employed by the British to record entrants into the infamous "book" and relocates to Nova Scotia. After a decade of struggling against the harsh elements, barren landscape and broken promises regarding land ownership; she and 1,200 other Africans relocate yet again to Africa to establish Freetown in partnership with London-based abolitionists.
The author notes in the Afterword where he has taken a few liberties with the timeline and some historical figures; however the vast majority of the book is factual; extracted from history books and inspired by diaries, memoirs, notes, etc. Hill expertly layers the social and political climates of the time against the protagonist's story. This novel is extremely well-written, perfectly paced, and highly recommended as a study aid for students or to anyone who enjoys the historical fiction genre.
Reviewed by Phyllis
on November 9, 2008
Aminata Diallo recounts her remarkable life journey in Lawrence Hill's novel, The Book of Negroes. Although a work of fiction, Hill's prose and characters are so strong and so authentic that the book often reads like a memoir. The protagonist, Aminata, begins her story as she testifies before an abolitionist group in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. What follows is her incredible life story, starting with being kidnapped at the age of 12 in Sierra Leone and forced into slavery in then Charles Town, South Carolina, to produce indigo dyes. As a young woman, she is purchased by a wealthy indigo dye inspector, and seeking freedom and independence, Aminata eventually escapes to New York, and later, Nova Scotia. Her lifelong dream is to return Sierra Leone, and when the British seek Black loyalists to establish what will eventually become Freetown, Sierra Leone, Aminata seizes the opportunity to return to the place of her birth.
Although this book is very much about the racism and discrimination of the eighteenth century, it is also about strength of a woman who endures despite physical and sexual violence, emotional abandonment, and the hardships of poverty no matter where she turns. Aminata's losses are heartbreaking, but her ability to survive and reach out to others despite unthinkable cruelty is inspirational. This book was longlisted for Canada's Giller Prize, and should have been a contender on the shortlist. Highly recommended. [Amy MacDougall]
on May 5, 2016
While “The Book of Negros” is a work of fiction, it is well researched and based on a great many historical facts about the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a real page-turner but at the same time it is very educational. Over the years much of Afro-Canadian history has been overlooked or forgotten. In recent years that situation has been changing and novels such as “The Book of Negros” do much ignite interest in this topic.
When the British were evicted from the Thirteen Colonies at the end of the War of Independence, part of their cargo manifest were the "Loyalists". Among those who remained loyal to the British Crown were a group with more practical needs. Former slaves, whose roots lay in Africa, decided their options were better with the British, who were debating the wisdom of the slave trade, than with the new "Americans" who continued to find profit in human commerce and slavery. The British accepted that responsibility, transporting 3000 "Negroes" from New York City to Nova Scotia, still a fledgling Atlantic Coast colony.
Lawrence Hill combines the lives of some of those transported former slaves into one woman, Aminata Diallo, who he gives the task of entering their names into the military's record: "The Book of Negroes". In this outstanding work of semi-fiction, he traces Aminata's life from her childhood in Mali through years of slavery in South Carolina to her final years in London. Her status, and her race, means that wherever she resides is considered her "home". Yet, as Aminata learns to her sorrow, "no place in the world was safe for an African" and that "survival depended on perpetual migration".
Aminata was an exceptional child. The daughter of a Muslim scholar and a midwife mother, she is taken by slave collectors at a young age. Once aboard the slave ship, her talents are recognised by the ship's doctor and she's given the task of assisting as a "nurse", particularly in "catching babies" as her mother taught her. However, she arrives in North America ill and weak. Considered worth little, she's taken to an indigo plantation. She's "rescued" by a Jewish indigo inspector who, along with his wife, furthers her writing and accounting skills. A slave is shuttled about at the owner's whim, and Aminata is taken to New York just prior to the independence effort. Although she sees little of the conflict, at its end she's taken up by a Royal Navy officer, who utilises what she's learned to be the recording clerk for The Book. She joins the exiles to Nova Scotia in hopes of starting a new life. In South Carolina she had married and borne a son, now long disappeared into the hinterlands, but Aminata retains hope to rejoin them both.
There's little for a freed slave in Nova Scotia and racial unrest flares when the colony's economy flags. A last hope is a novel idea put forward by British "abolitionists" seeking an end to the slave trade. The Sierra Leone Company has taken up land on the West African coast as the means to resettle Britain's former slaves. The threat of being caught up in the traffic still looms, as the battle to end the trade has barely started. Aminata's desire to find her home and return to it dominates her thinking. She's hardy and risks don't temper her craving to restore her roots. John Clarkson, the Navy officer who has become a patron, now wishes to use her abilities once more, this time to relate the horrors of the slave trade. In her final journey to yet another place, they travel to London where an account of her life is to be penned for presentation to Parliament. It is that account, which she insists on writing herself instead of relying on others, that we are reading in this book.
Telling this story from Aminata's viewpoint is a significant accomplishment. Hill has managed to enter her mind with superior ability, imparting a woman's feelings with seamless skill. Aminata's deep faith in her own value and her longing to keep the children she's borne and the man she loves are given the reader without blemish. The book is one of the most meaningful and yet artistic on the topics of slavery and the struggle to take control of one's own life. That's enterprise enough for even free whites. What it takes for a kidnapped African child can only be imagined. Hill put his imagination to work, and the result is a book that will become a great classic. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Hearing your own name spoken in public isn't usually something significant. Yet, on a slave trading ship that transported up to a thousand Africans to North America, this act of public acknowledgement was momentous. Calling out their full names to each other was equal to "affirming their humanity". In the early mornings from the bowels of the vessel the chanting voices represented not only an important ritual of recognition and respect, it was also a way of finding out who had made it through the night. The conditions on the slave ship were abysmal: the Africans were jammed together and shackled most of the time, lacking food and water and sanitation, leading to exhaustion, infections and starvation. Many lost their minds, many more died. When the captives arrived in North America they were traded and sold like cattle and their suffering continued.
The brutality of the West African slave trade in which millions of Africans perished is well documented. However, when a knowledgeable and perceptive novelist transforms these records and the many personal accounts of cruelty and tragedy on the one hand and survival, perseverance and hope on the other into one inclusive narrative around one memorable character, the realities of the many merge into one rich and lively, heart wrenching and joyful history-based novel of exceptional beauty and power.
First we meet Aminata Diallo, the heroine of The Book of Negroes, as a frail old woman, yet with a fiery spirit and resolve that she must have had all her life. Hill's novel lets her relate her story in her own voice, direct and uncomplicated, yet subtle and insightful. Written in the best African story-telling tradition, it addresses readers directly, absorbing us completely into characters, times and places of the struggle for survival and eventual freedom.
Nurtured by loving parents in rural Mali, Aminata, unusual for the time, was educated in reading and the Qur'an by her father and learned the skill of "catching babies" from her midwife mother. Hill's familiarity with places and cultures of different peoples in West Africa gives the depiction of village life and tradition vivacity and veracity. At age eleven, during a raid on the village, the young girl is seized by African slavers and forced to join many others on the long, hard road into slavery. The memory of her parents, killed during the attack, gives her strength and guidance throughout her ordeal. Her beauty and intelligence combined with her midwifery skills, help her to stay alive during the dangerous passage to North America and for the next decades, sold as property to different more or less abuse owners.
Aminata's portrayal of survival in the midst of so many who perish, of violence and misery, but also of friendships found and lost, as well as love and family, evokes a rainbow of emotions in the reader - from despair and sadness to delight and joy. Hill's talent placing himself into the mind of his heroine is admirable. Through her he has created a captivating panoramic life story with authentic characters. Not only is the heroine of the novel a wonderfully vibrant and endearing personality, she is surrounded by many, equally believable, individuals.
Aminata's life voyage takes her through many dramatic turns of fate to freedom and back into Africa. During the American War for Independence, she finds herself on the British side and is sent, as a freed slave, to Nova Scotia with the promise for a better life. She enters her name in the historic "Book of Negroes", a British military ledger that recorded the names and details of some 3,000 black Loyalists being allowed to leave the American territory for Shelburne Harbour. Hope, however, turns into gloom and despair. The first race riots in North America break out in Shelburne. Birchtown, the black settlement, is ransacked and many inhabitants are killed. Betrayed by some, but supported by others, Aminata survives and finally fulfils her dream of returning "home" as one of the "adventurers" of the Sierra Leone resettlement program, sponsored by British abolitionists. She has come full circle but not quite in the way she had dreamt. Asked by abolitionist politicians in London to tell her story as a genuine African voice to promote their cause, Aminata takes on a final new role.
Hill's novel brings many factual historical strands together, introducing a range of contemporary personalities accurately into the storyline. Together he transforms them into a stunning and wide reaching panorama of human suffering, endurance and victory. Rich in authentic detail yet fluid in its style and tone, He has brought memorable characters to life that illustrate the strengths of the human spirit. [Friederike Knabe]
Published in the USA under the title "Someone Knows My Name"
In 1745, Aminata Diallo was a precocious 11 year old living with her doting family in Mali. One day on her way home from helping her mother she was abducted by African slavers. After a harrowing voyage aboard a slave ship to America, Aminata is sold to an indigo plantation on an island off the coast of South Carolina.
Aminita is blessed with the love and understanding of many languages and her ability to read and write and keep the master's books prove to be a great advantage. Escaping from her owner, these skills allow her to support herself in New York working for the British during the Revolutionary War. This service allowed her to accompany the Loyalists to Nova Scotia and temporarily settle there with others trying to survive the hideous levels of poverty and discrimination. From there, she eventually makes her way back to Sierra Leone and on to London.
Although this book is a fiction based on events it is nevertheless a captivating read and an eye opener into a part of history that I knew little about. The story is very engaging; you are transported through time from a tribal African village to the manor houses of London. As for Aminita her narration is dominated by her voice and spirit, she is a strong character one who is not afraid to face a world hostile to her colour and sex.
The novel highlights the issues of equality and human rights and the never ending struggle to obtain them.
Mr Hill is a master story teller, no surprise "The Book of Negroes" is an award winner.
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 October 2, 2008
It was a perfect read for me. I bought it when I was in a hurry and started reading it the same way... never even noticed the name or sex of the author... after a few pages into the book, I did check the author info... and was quite surprised to note it was written by a man... he so truly captured the mind of the child/woman... I was enthralled by this lovely character all through the story... and it gave me new thoughts to think and ideas to ponder... all related to being a child/woman regardless of where or when or other circumstances... wonderful, wonderful read!
on January 8, 2010
Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is one of the most outstanding novels in recent memory. The story and characters are compelling, and Hill's meticulously-researched historical references make a seemingly unlikely storyline very credible. The illustrated edition in finely crafted, but I wouldn't recommend this edition for someone who has not yet read the novel. I think I would have found the rich resources of the illustrated version to be a distraction from the story. But as a second copy for a welcome re-read, the illustrations add value to the amazing substance of the original. I bought two copies, one intended as a Christmas present. Then I had second thoughts -- would the recipient appreciate the novel as much as I hoped if distracted by the illustrations? In the end, it turned out fine -- my friend had already read the novel, and welcomed the illustrated version with gusto.