14 August 2009

Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes was the winner of Canada Reads 2009 on CBC radio. Basically, the idea behind Canada Reads is that a panel of famous Canadians each choose a book by a Canadian author, which they think Canadians should read. On the radio program, the panellists defend their choices, eventually eliminating four of the books and choosing a winner. I'm not really sure where it all goes from there, if anywhere, since I've never actually listened to the program, but the books chosen do get a fair bit of exposure, winners or not. Probably I wouldn't have picked up the novel if I hadn't heard about it via the CBC website blurbs about Canada Reads. (In some markets, this novel is known by the title Someone Knows My Name, which I think is an insipid title that tells you nothing at all about the story, whereas the Canadian title gives you an idea of the time in which it takes place and of the people the story will be about.)

It's the story of one African woman, Aminata Diallo, beginning with her capture as a child by slave traders in the interior of Africa in 1745. The novel follows her journey to the US (then a British colony) and into her life on an indigo plantation where she learns, in secret, to read and write. Eventually Aminata finds herself in New York, working for the British during the war against the rebels, first as a midwife to "catch" the babies born to the (mostly black) mistresses of the officers and then later as a record keeper, filling in the Book of Negroes, a document detailing some 3000 Black Loyalists who the British sent to other colonies following their defeat. Aminata travels on one of these ships to Nova Scotia, then later to Sierra Leone and finally to London, from whence she writes her story.

Opening paragraph:
I seem to have trouble dying. By all rights, I should not have lived this long. But I still can smell trouble riding on any wind, just as surely as I could tell you whether it is a stew of chicken necks or pigs' feet bubbling in the iron pot on the fire. And my ears still work just as good as a hound dog's. People assume that just because you don't stand as straight as a sapling, you're deaf. Or that your mind is like pumpkin mush. The other day, when I was being led into a meeting with a bishop, one of the society ladies told another, "We must get this woman into Parliament soon. Who knows how much longer she'll be with us?" Half bent though I was, I dug my fingers into her ribs. She let out a shriek and spun around to face me. "Careful," I told her, "I may outlast you!"

The Book of Negroes is a lovely story and in many ways a heart-breaking one. It's a story about loss, loss of family and homeland and identity. It's about survival as well, and strength and overcoming the odds, not by luck but by knowing when to fight and when to hide. It's an interesting mix of uplifting and heartbreaking because for all that Aminata does, there always remains the backdrop of her lost family and freedom and the fates of so many other enslaved people who weren't so capable or adept at survival.

The historical backdrop of the novel – it spans 1745 to 1802 – is quite fascinating, particularly once Aminata leaves the United States. I think very few Canadians have half a clue about slavery in Canada, me included. I was never taught anything in school about slavery in Canada and have only read one play on the subject, Beatrice Chancy by George Clarke. This book didn't deal so much with Canadian slavery as the lives of freed slaves who'd come up from the US and the misery they found in Nova Scotia. I think it's a subject that many of us could stand to learn a little more about, even if it's uncomfortable to look at that history, even if we only read fictionalized accounts.

It's easy to talk about this book without talking about how well written it is or how successful a bit of storytelling. For the most part it is quite beautifully written. Hill did a pretty good job of rendering the various dialects used by Aminata – the version of English the slaves used amongst themselves, the one they used in front of their masters, and the one used by the masters (and Aminata) themselves. The story had a more contemporary style than I imagine it might have had if it had truly been written in the early 1800s. A few bits didn't (for me) ring quite true for a woman in that time either, particularly of her sex life with her husband. A couple plot points too, which I shan't spoil since they come too near the end of the book, didn't ring quite true. Some of it felt too convenient, too unlikely, too much a nice but ultimately useless touch.

Nevertheless, those few things didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book or from the curiosity it awoke in me about my own country's history. This was such a compelling read and I think an important one. There's a lot to be learned from it. More than that, it's just a pleasure to read. I rushed through the book so quickly, wanting to know what next, what next, that I suspect a second more thoughtful read through would do me some good.

Lawrence Hill has written both fiction and non-fiction, including Any Known Blood, Some Great Thing, and Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. His website, which includes short excerpts of his books, can be found here. Canada Reads also has an online book club for The Book of Negroes here.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2007.
Finished: 04 August 09
Rating: 4 of 5 moons scarred into cheeks
This was my 2nd book in August and my 32nd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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