The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill attempts to make sense of the transatlantic slave trade through the fictional story of its main character, Aminata Diallo. This is a historical fiction book that draws you into history through emotional storytelling and factual information. Once you start you can’t put it down.
Lawrence Hill is the son of a civil rights activist, Donna Hill, and sociologist, Daniel G. Hill, who are descended from Africans enslaved in the United States. His parents were pioneers of the human rights movement in Canada and wrote works on the history of blacks in Canada.
During his adult years, Hill was a reporter with The Globe and Mail and parliamentary correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has volunteered with the Canadian Crossroads International, traveling to Niger, Cameroon, and Mali. Additionally, he completed his education from the Universite Laval in Quebec City, where he completed a B.A. in economics, and The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he finished an M.A. in writing.
Knowing this, I’m not surprised Lawrence Hill ended up following in his parent’s footsteps in writing about the transatlantic slave trade.
I’m really grateful for this gift he has left us because it truly is a novel that touched my soul.
Continue reading to find out my thoughts on the novel and how to get your hands on a copy!
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The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Published by: Harper Collins
Publication Date: 2007
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Cultural
“Abducted from Africa as a child and enslaved in South Carolina, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom—and of the knowledge she needs to get home. Sold to an indigo trader who recognizes her intelligence, Aminata is torn from her husband and child and thrown into the chaos of the Revolutionary War. In Manhattan, Aminata helps pen the Book of Negroes, a list of blacks rewarded for service to the king with safe passage to Nova Scotia. There Aminata finds a life of hardship and stinging prejudice. When the British abolitionists come looking for “adventurers” to create a new colony in Sierra Leone, Aminata assists in moving 1,200 Nova Scotians to Africa and aiding the abolitionist cause by revealing the realities of slavery to the British public. This captivating story of one woman’s remarkable experience spans six decades and three continents and brings to life a crucial chapter in world history.
Over the course of this epic novel, Aminata is transformed into a storyteller extraordinaire. She spins the astonishing tale of her remarkable travels from Africa to America and back again. Along the way, a sojourn in Nova Scotia illuminates a long-neglected chapter in Canadian history.
Aminata’s autobiography — or, in her words, “ghost story” — begins with her idyllic childhood in West Africa. Happy times are cut short when she is abducted at age 11, placed in chains, taken across the sea and forced into slavery at an indigo plantation in South Carolina.
But Aminata is a survivor and this is just one chapter in her remarkable life story. In a fitting twist for a book featured on Canada Reads, Aminata discovers that literacy just might be her ticket to a new life. “
Synopsis borrowed from Goodreads.com
MY THOUGHTS ON THE BOOK OF NEGROES
I honestly loved this book despite the horrific time period it covers. Most of you probably don’t know this but I completed a B.A. in History from the University of Ottawa and have always had an interest in our history. More specifically, I enjoy learning about colonial history, which is the period this book is set in. So once I started reading it, it was all I could talk about.
The Good and the Ugly
The novel’s narrative follows the life story of its main character Aminata Diallo. In the opening of the book, we learn that she is helping the British abolitionists with their cause by preparing to share her epic life story to Parliament. We already know how her life ends from the beginning – free and in London. However, it is her life leading up to that moment that makes up the majority of the book.
The novel is an epic story in the style of Pachinko (traversing a lifetime of one character). Aminata’s story begins as a young girl in the African village of Bayo. It’s a happy life, yet warnings of kidnappers are rumored, foreshadowing Aminata’s future.
Like many African’s before her, she’s abducted outside of her village and her story as a slave begins. We follow Aminata to South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia, and then back to Africa as an old woman.
A Shameful Period in History
I’m going to assume most of us are aware of the slave trade that occurred after Europeans colonized the Americas. It’s a piece of history that humanity isn’t proud of. We segregated people based on their location and skin color, removed all their rights, forced them into slave labor and had them live in horrifying conditions. They were treated as inferior and as property. It’s hard to imagine today that it was even allowed to happen.
The Book of Negroes does an amazing job drawing you into the life of an African during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. I felt like I was walking in Aminata Diallo’s shoes as she was forced to walk for three months to the African coast, barely surviving the journey. I saw through her eyes the journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship that is nothing but inhumane.
Surprisingly, I also felt the joy and love she found in America through the relationships she formed. On the first plantation, she befriended a hardened older woman named Georgia who taught her how to survive. Her second owner, Mr. Lindo, was a lot kinder than her previous owner and encouraged her to learn reading and bookkeeping.
Despite the horrific life that was forced on her, there was always a silver lining, a glimmer of hope. She had an unusual experience compared to the average slave. Lawrence Hill leads us to believe that it was this that allowed her to survive.
Canada and the Slave Trade
Interestingly, The Book of Negroes is the only work of literature that I have come across in my lifetime that touches on Canada’s involvement in the slave trade. Until reading this novel, I assumed Canada had no involvement but I was obviously ignorant.
The Book of Negroes touches on Canada’s involvement after the American Revolution (1765-1783). During these years it became increasingly difficult for residents who supported the British crown to stay in the United States. They were met with increasing hostility and eventually pulled out of America. Many Britons relocated to Canada while promising any slave that helped the British during the revolution to follow and be free (though we learn in the novel that the promise wasn’t their top priority).
The novel’s name actually comes from a book during this exodus to Canada. The Book of Negroes was a ledger containing the names of slaves leaving America on British ships to Canada. This book is real and can be referenced in many institutions.
Most of the Africans settled in Nova Scotia, living in shanty villages. They were met with hostility by Britons looking for work. Since free African’s could work for money, they took whatever was available to them, usually at a lower wage. This resulted in a lack of work for British resident – and you can guess what happens.
Clear on historical facts vs. fiction
Lastly, I found it really helpful that Lawrence Hill included an explanation at the end of the novel, explaining what he imagined for the story and what he pulled from fact.
Although I already had a good understanding of this period in history, it was nice that this information was available. Especially today with readily available information online, it can be hard to differentiate between trusted and false information. In a historical fiction novel, it can be easy to think what you’re reading is real, or not realizing that it actually happened.
Lawrence Hill cleared up any questions at the end of the book by clearly explaining what he made up for the narrative and what actually happened.
Without hesitation, I gave The Book of Negroes 5 out of 5 stars in my Goodreads review. The epic story which feeds to the human emotion is a must read. Although it’s not a new book (published in 2007) it is worth picking up a copy.
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