Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes
Written by a book club member at Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village.
There are some novels that you can’t put down. There are some that beckon a reading every spare minute in today’s all too hectic lifestyle. And there are some that etch such a profound impression on your heart and soul that they stay with you for weeks, months, and even years afterwards. Lawrence Hill accomplishes all three with his award-winning, critically-acclaimed masterpiece, The Book of Negroes. I’m in the second ‘stay with you’ category after reading the novel two months ago, but I’m sure I’ll be in the third one come this time next year. Yes, it’s that good.
In writers’ circles, there’s a saying: “write what you know.” When a skilled writer invests in a project that he or she knows and feels passionate about, it clearly reveals itself in the story. The world becomes textured and compelling, characters rich and believable, and plots woven and gripping. Not to mention, the prose, nuance, and subtext take on a heartbeat of their own. This all works synergistically to keep you turning pages well into the night, so that you can keep the story world alive in your mind’s eye. And from the first chapter on, it’s clear that Hill is writing what he knows. Something his lengthy body of work clearly proves.
The Book of Negroes is historical fiction at its finest. Set in the mid-1700s, a young African woman, Aminata Diallo, is abducted from her homeland by slave traders on the African continent. She’s marched for days to the coast and then forced aboard a slave ship, where she experiences all the degradations of slavery’s barbaric practices. Fortunately, she has a gift: she knows how to deliver, or ‘catch’, babies. This saving grace helps keep her in her masters’ good favour. Clinging to her sanity in an insane world, she manages to survive the oceanic crossing under horrific conditions. Weak, sick, and dehumanized, she’s sold like cattle to a slave holder on St. Helena Island in the American south. She’s forced to work on his indigo plantation with a hodgepodge of other slaves either born into slavery or also abducted from the African continent. Aminata finds a mentor in an older slave woman who teaches her how to read, write, and practice herbal medicine.
What follows is Aminata’s story in the Americas as she grows into a young woman navigating the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of slavery. At times it’s difficult to read, because you know these types of events truly happened. She suffers one blow after another. She’s raped. Her child is taken and sold. She loses her husband. She’s resold to another slave owner and sent to Charleston in South Carolina to work as a servant. The thought of finding her husband and child and returning to her homeland become the beacons that help her persevere in an unkind, violent, and inhumane world. It’s a world where the reader painfully realizes is not all that distant in humankind’s past.
When Aminata finally reunites with her husband, they have a second child, a daughter named May. Sadly, May is abducted during the conflict and turmoil of the American Revolution. Scared, desperate, and hurting, Aminata works for the British as a scribe on The Book of Negroes, a record of Black Loyalists who agree to leave America for a British colony in Nova Scotia. She joins them and sails to the colony, where she soon learns the British’s promise of a free colony is far from the utopia it’s portrayed as. It’s not long before she takes an offer from a British Colony to sail to Africa to establish Freetown in Sierra Leone. Once there, the Black Loyalists realize they’ve been led astray again. And again, Aminata faces the brutal practices of slavery, which she thought she’d left behind. Always on her mind is the return trip to her homeland, and so it’s not long before she finds someone willing to help. She embarks on a gruelling journey into the heart of Africa, but when she overhears that her guide actually plans to resell her into slavery, she flees into the wild. She barely survives her flight. She’s taken in by villagers, who then nurse her back to health and help her return to the coast.
Once she recovers from her harrowing ordeal, she’s approached by a group of abolitionists. They want her to return to Britain with them to share her story of slavery. She agrees and joins the Abolitionist movement in London, where she resides as a free woman. Some time passes and her daughter, May, tracks her down in London. They foster a relationship that bestows a solace their hears and minds so desperately need. Aminata spends her remaining years speaking about the horrors of slavery and penning her memoir.
Hill’s writing style captures both the era and Aminata perfectly. Events unfold so naturally that you forget the authorial presence. The diction and dialogue feel culturally and historically accurate. The prose flows smoothly and consistently all the way through. In each scene, the pacing is just right for the emotional context. The imagery is fresh, nuanced, and haunting. Hill is able to make a young woman into a believable heroine through realistic experiences that shape her for the years ahead. He refuses to back down from the horrible events Aminata faces, and he lays them out like a true master, unflinching even when it hurts. Aminata faces so much jeopardy that you never know when the hammer will fall again, and if next time will be the last time. To call this novel a page-turner would be an understatement — it’s more a river of humanity that sweeps you away. With that said, I found echoes of Fredrick Douglass’s story, author of Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass, and the iconic words of Sir Isaac Newton came to mind: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Thus begs a question to be answered, who will stand on Hill’s shoulders?