26 April 2010

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

I have been hearing about this book all over the place for more than a year, or so it feels, anyway. I had requested the book back in December through the library (I was 179th in line!) and finally received it a week ago. As soon as time permitted, I dove into the book and was immediately taken with it. This book is beautifully written. I have not read other books by Lawrence Hill, but through this one, he proved himself to be a very talented author. I was able to trust the facts and images presented in the book and read the details with confidence. Undoubtedly, this book was incredibly well researched. The facts were also presented in an interesting way to inform, but not bore or distract the reader. The attention to detail, such as differing names for both white and black people in various places and stages of travel, also helped the reader further understand the setting of the novel.

Lawrence Hill is an historian and a novelist. He grew up in Toronto in the 1960s. the son of American immigrants to Canada who had been heavily involved with the human rights movement. He began his career as a reporter for the Globe and Mail and correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press. He is widely traveled and has volunteered with Canadian Crossroads International, which enabled him to travel to Niger, Cameroon, and Mali. He currently lives with his wife and 5 children in Hamilton, Ontario. Here is a link to his website.

This is the story of a girl, Aminata Dialo, who is taken when she is but 8 years old from her home and family in Sierra Leone to be sold in the slave trade. The story follows her in her early childhood in Africa, in the long journey to the sea to be shipped across to America, her life as a slave in America, the loss of her children and husband, her escape and relocation to Nova Scotia, her constant search for her homeland, and her work with the abolitionists in England. It is a heartbreaking tale, but also one of hope and strength.

I would include a slight warning with this novel. It is a dangerous one to pick up. The story is both incredibly sad, yet also hopeful. I found I was unable to put the book down during both sad and happy moments. I repeatedly read it until two and three in the morning, simply unable to find a place where I could put the book down for the night. To me, this is indicative of a well-written novel, not sensationalised and captivating.

Some interesting themes in the novel were overcoming one’s own fears, becoming a strong individual, reconciling with the betrayal of one’s own people, and the desire for freedom. I am not an historian, nor am I especially well read on the slave trade, the drive to abolish slavery, or the American Revolution. The novel pitched the drive of the American’s for freedom from the British in the American Revolution against the slave trade, which I found incredibly interesting.

Lawrence Hill based the title of this novel on an actual historical document, Book of Negroes. The actual Book of Negroes is the largest single document to black people in North America until the end of the 18th century. It provides the names and details of 3000 black people (men, women, and children) who served the British during the American Revolution. After the war, they were permitted to leave the United States, mostly from New York, under the care of the British, to Nova Scotia, though some went to Quebec, Germany, and England. The author provides a brief bibliography and source description at the end of the novel. Here is a link to an electronic version of the actual Book of Negroes through the Library Archives of Canada.

All in all, I would most certainly recommend this novel. It will certainly be added to my list of most recommended.

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