Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres of books because if done correctly, an author can bring a historical character to life and sweep readers away into a different time period, introducing vivid details about life in the past.  Most historical fiction writers take some liberties with names, dates, and events, but tend to stick closely to the most relevant information about the period of time that their story takes place in.  The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is no exception, and presents a heartbreaking, lyrical narrative that addresses one of the greatest stains of  human history-the Transatlantic slave trade.

Aminata Diallo is the first person narrator and it is her story that readers follow throughout the book.  As the novel opens, she is an old woman living in London, being cared for by abolitionists who want her to tell her to appear before Parliament as part of their appeal to lawmakers to abolish the practice of transporting Africans across the Atlantic, a move that they hope will eventually lead to the complete end of slavery.  With stunning prose and moving imagery, Aminata takes readers back in time to her childhood in her village of Bayo, where she is the daughter of a jewelry maker who goes against tradition by teaching her how to read and write passages from the Qu'ran, and a midwife who teaches her the art of "catching babies".  When she and her parents are captured and their village raided and set on fire, Aminata is eleven years old and watches both her mother and father be killed as they fight their captors. With only a few familiar faces from her village and the friendship of a young man Chekura, Aminata endures such unspeakable horrors on the slave ship that as an old woman, she admonishes readers "if you.....have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary.  And cultivate distrust of the colour pink.....what benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?" Aminata's story takes her from the indigo plantations of South Carolina as a slave to Canada as a free woman after she is granted freedom for serving the British during the Revolutionary War.  Along the way, she endured nearly every cruelty associated with slavery, including rape and the separation of her husband and children.

Lawrence Hill lives in Burlington, Ontario with his wife and children.  He began his writing career as a journalist and is the author of two other novels as well as several works of non-fiction.  The son of a sociologist and a civil rights activist, Hill grew up immersed in his parents' human rights work as well as research about the history of black people in Canada.  The Book of Negroes takes its title from a real historical document bearing the same name, which documented blacks who worked for the British during the Revolutionary War in exchange for freedom.  The work was originally published under the title of Someone Knows My Name and in 2015, was adapted into a miniseries airing on BET. For more information about the author, visit his official website.

This novel is not for the faint of heart.  Hill's meticulous research is evident in horrific, spellbinding details that offers readers no escape from the brutally graphic treatment that many slaves endured.  This, coupled with Aminata's brave, unflinching voice and piercing observations of the world around her, makes this a story that readers won't soon forget.  The narrative is so believable that one could easily find themselves looking up the actual Book of Negroes and searching for Aminata's name as one of its entries.  Hers is no rose-colored story of happy slaves living in Tara.  While Hill adds dimension and a range of emotions to all of his characters, slaves and slave owners alike, through Aminata's words we are provided with a psychological damnation of the institution with no room for justification or whitewashing.  As she thinks back about her march to the coast where she and the other captured Africans will board the slave ship, she makes a blunt analysis about the eyes of the slave catchers.  "Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully.  To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity, and to assert your own".  I highly recommend The Book of Negroes as a beautifully handled work of fiction that handles an all-too real subject with candor and dignity.  Aminata's story will travel with you long after you have turned the last page.