Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill ~ Book Review

 I know this is a long review but bear with me it was a long book and covered much.  Inspired by the actual Book of Negroes penned in Manhattan in which names were listed of former and current slaves who had helped the British during the Revolutionary war and who were qualified to board ship to travel to a new life in Nova Scotia, Canada.

 Aminata Diallo was only 12 years old when she was abducted by slave traders from her home in West Africa. Forced to walk for 3 months in chains until they reached the sea, she is then shipped to America where she is sold in South Carolina to an indigo plantation. Having the skills of a midwife passed onto to her from her mother she uses those skills to survive and help other slaves by "catching" their babies. Knowing she must learn all she can to survive she secretly is taught to read by the black women who takes her under her wing at the plantation and when she is sold to a Jewish indigo inspector, she is more than willing to learn to work with numbers and ledgers when he wants her to. Befriended by his wife, Aminata continues to expand her knowledge of the white man's world and ways and when opportunity arises for her to make her escape she ends up in Manhattan living in a colony of other ex-slaves. Her reading and writing skills come to the attention of the British military who then "hire" her with the promise of her own name being added to write the "Book of Negroes" a historic British military ledger that allowed Black loyalists passage on ships to Nova Scotia where there were promised land and freedom. With the desire in her heart to someday return to her beloved African village of Bayo, Aminata agrees, seeing it as one step towards that dream. But her losses keep adding up. When the opportunity finally arrives to return, and with no more family ties in North America, she takes her chance and arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a British colony created for returning slaves. Will her losses and disappointments finally end now that she is back in her homeland? Now all of a sudden unsure, Aminata risks her life to travel back to her village not knowing if she will even see it still standing or if anyone will remember her.

 It was hard to put this book down once I started. Epic in it's scope the story starts with an aged Aminata in Britain then travels back to about 40 years earlier to Africa to America to Canada, back to Africa and finally settles itself in Britain. I was amazed that the author, a male, had written such a strong female character, and that, in a first person point of view. I really liked all his research into the historical aspects of the British military and abolitionists role in the actual Book of Negroes and returning slaves to Africa. The Book of Negroes is the largest single document about black people in North America until the end of the 18th century according to the author's research. 3000 names of men, women and children were recorded, those who had served the British in some capacity during the revolutionary war and then promised a new life, so to speak, in Nova Scotia. It was interesting to read his chapter at the end entitled "A word on history" and should not be skipped as it gels the story together.

 The hardships Aminata endured from her capture right until her move to Britain were horrendous and yet her drive for survival and keeping her character never left. There were times in the story, though, when I thought her strength and backbone would have landed her in way more trouble than the story unfolded and she seemed to walk away from a lot of horrible consequences other slaves might not have and lived a proportionately better life than was the status quo of her peers. But totally free of horrors she was not. Physical, mental and emotional abuse followed her throughout her life. It was heart-rending to read of all her losses throughout her life, yet refreshing to also read of her overcoming them and never losing her character or the will to survive within her. Mentioned in the beginning was the fact that her father was a Muslim and taught her to pray but it is not delved into much further within the story. A reunion of a loved one in the end seemed to happen a little too conveniently for it to be quite believable and was unnecessary to the story but didn't detract from the power of the story.   It was a brave life that she had the courage to step beyond her pain, losses and disappointments, beyond letting hatred consume her and allow herself to work with the white British abolitionists for the removal of slavery even after being disillusioned with them also. If nothing else the Book of Negroes and the story of Aminata should speak to us of hanging onto our hope and courage in the hardest of times

Worthy to mention is the fact that  there is some sexual content.  Too descriptive for my liking it had me skipping a few paragraphs but it is  fairly moderate in today's adult book standards but deserves the mention that there is some in the context of the story.

Alternate title and  cover used in U.S.

Reading Goal Met:   Book with more than 500 pages (slight cheat coming in at 474), Book that made me cry, Book by an author you've never read, A book you own but have never read, A Book based on or turned into a tv show.

Will also be linked to Semicolon Saturday Review of Books


Faith said...

oh my goodness....i need to look for this book in our library so I'm assuming I should look for it in the other title. this sounds just like the kind of book I love to read!!!! thanks for the great review...perfect too for our long weekend of celebrating Dr Martin Luther King Jr's birthday...what a hero he was.

Barbara H. said...

Sounds fascinating. Definitely eye-opening.

nikkipolani said...

Sounds very realistic in its tale of loss and disappointment among the victories of life. I'm glad you made it through this longer book.