Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2007)

Last summer, walking in Little Jamaica in Toronto, I picked up a copy of a community newspaper with a cover image of protesters overseas burning the cover of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.

HarperCollins, 2007

Book burning: it’s a headline-grab alright. It certainly captured this reader’s attention.

I’d been wanting to read this volume since it was published — and that intensified with every longlisting, shortlisting and win — but the idea of it having inspired such controversy secured my determination.

The author’s response to this event and consideration of the “kaleidoscopic evolution of racial terminology” appears here.

I thought the American title, Someone Knows My Name was a beautiful title, and hadn’t realized it was chosen to avoid controversy (also in Australia and New Zealand).

The Book of Negroes was a British military document, which recorded the names of black loyalists who sought to leave Manhattan for Nova Scotia after they had escaped slavery by serving the British in the Revolutionary War.

And so, the novel is named for a “living, breathing document”, as the author describes it, with over-large pages of names and descriptions and details.

The author likes to imagine there is a novel for each of the 3,000 men, women and children whose names are entered in this ledger, but that his, the novel of Aminata Diallo’s life, is the first to appear as The Book of Negroes. (HarperCollins video here)

Aminata Diallo was stolen from her family and village and sold into slavery when she was eleven, young enough to continue to dream of going home.

She survives the voyage to the coast, the journey across the ocean, the process of being sold and inducted into plantation life and indigo production, and much more. (That you can gather from reading the publisher’s blurb, but I’ll not spoil anything else.)

“How is it that some ordinary people go through the worst things imaginable and still keep on going, don’t lost their minds, don’t become murderers or suicidal, don’t become so embittered that they can’t love life anymore; they keep on trekking;I think that’s a miracle of human nature.”

Aminata is that miracle; Lawrence Hill is the author who tells stories that have been forgotten, seeking to answer this question, whose answer eludes him.

The Book of Negroes begins with an older Aminata telling her own story. So readers know that she has survived, though not what she has endured.

Only a few pages later, however, and Aminata is a young girl, living in Bayo (in present-day Mali, although Aminata only views her village as “home”).

She is struggling to cope with the political dynamics in the village, frustrated by her dislike for a particular woman there, Fanta.

And, in America...

“‘You must learn respect,’ Papa said.
‘But I do not respect her,’ I said.
Papa paused for a moment, and patted my leg. ‘Then you must learn to hide your disrespect.'”

These early scenes of Animata’s childhood are vitally important, to Aminata and to the reader, who needs to understand the sense of home and identity that Aminata carries with her always.  It is not only advice which she will recall later (and perhaps cast aside); it is her source of strength.

Just as the “pungent, liberating smell of mint tea has always brought me back to my childhood”, the reader understands that Aminata hearkens back to her life in Africa in the many moments of determination and resistance that populate this novel.

Survival is a difficult business, but just as her relationships with her mother and father were at the heart of her young life, Aminata makes crucial connections as she moves through her new world.

“‘Pockmarks on your face a good thing, chile.’
‘Why?’
‘You need something to ugly you up. You’re like a flower now, and that ain’t good.'”

In the context of these relationships, there is much kindness and love and beauty that seeks to balance that cruelty and devastation of slavery.

And Australia...

Although it’s clear to see that this novel could be read for educational purposes alone (on a rare occasion, the dates and details almost feel like a professor’s notebook, and there is an impressive and enticing appendix of recommended resources), it is an engrossing and engaging story.

One might read it simply to learn, for as the author says: “To confront our own history is healthy.” But there is a breadth of emotion herein, including some hearty laughter.

There is also some beautiful writing, phrases which manage to capture age-old ideas in a fresh voice. For instance, the view that Aminata has when near the slave market: “Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death.”

When the illustrated edition was published (2-minute HarperCollins trailer here), I was immediately smitten, but I read the paperback first and I am glad.

It took Aminata a long time to piece together the complicated journey that she took, to be able to trace her routes visually after she was stolen, and I would not have wanted to have a map in front of me for this first reading. But for a second? Absolutely.

The Book of Negroes is a story worth re-reading.

Have you read this? Would you re-read? Or, are you yet to meet Aminata?

 

2014-03-17T15:31:40+00:00

11 Comments

  1. Buried In Print July 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    Aarti – You definitely want to meet Aminata. She is such a memorable character. (There are a couple of others that I think you’ll be fascinated by, as well, but I don’t want to spoil that.)

    John – It does seem to have a remarkably wide appeal. Have you seen the illustrated edition? It’s so striking. That might tempt even a confirmer non-re-reader!

  2. John Mutford July 21, 2012 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    It’s one of the few books that my wife and I agree on, both having enjoyed it.

    Still, not sure if I’ll ever be up for a reread. I’m not a re-reader at all, but I’d never say never.

  3. Aarti July 21, 2012 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    WOW, this sounds fantastic! I haven’t even heard of this before, but what a compelling source for a story. Definitely on my wish list now.

  4. Vasilly July 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    Iris and Debbie are so right, couldn’t the publishers have found another image to put on the cover? Something unique has been taken away from both books. I also think the publishers should have kept the original name of the book.

    • Buried In Print July 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      Well, if it had to have a second title, it’s a beautiful one, but it’s not the author’s intended title, right? So you can’t help but want it to have that extra authenticity, and have it stand as an overt representation of those more than 3,000 people whose names remain but whose stories can only be imagined, so that this single volume — just from its title — can hint at a breadth of experiences that have been lost to the record.

  5. Buried In Print July 20, 2012 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Monique – It’s funny, isn’t it, how that kind of retaliation against a book makes you want to support it in any way you can? In this case, by actually reading it and bringing it into discussion.

    Kate – That’s true. You do have the sense of being “right there”, which is striking, because the events recounted are a second step removed from you as the reader, it’s not just that Aminata is telling you her story, but she’s telling it to you a lifetime later, so you’re doubly removed and, yet, it resonates strongly.

    Iris – I had the same feeling exactly. It is a lovely image, but now it’s not Aminata, it’s just an image. (I haven’t read Formna’s novel yet, though I can reach it from where I’m sitting, otherwise I’d feel betrayed first on that character’s behalf.) I guess we all need to buy a lot more books so that publishers will start commissioning cover art again, instead of relying on stock photography.

    Debbie – The question of naming, the way that it intertwines throughout the novel, is fascinating, and, I agree, there is a lot to learn. For the most part, too, you’re not even aware of how much you’re absorbing about the history. Only an two occasions did I have a fleeting sense that I was being acquainted with a set of facts, whereas for the most part the story swells over the details.

    Heavenali – Even if it’s not your usual cuppa, I think you would be immediately engaged in this woman’s story. It begins in England, and the reader knows that she has survived, but it’s surprising how quickly you are pulled into the events of her life. One part of the book that I didn’t mention above, is that she began, as a young girl, helping her mother catch babies, and her skill as a midwife is an important part of her journey throughout.

  6. heavenali July 19, 2012 at 10:31 am - Reply

    I recognised the cover art as being the same The Memory of Love – which I haven’t read – but the image is now well known. It’s odd that the same image was chosen.

    The book sounds fascinating though. Thank you for a great review.

  7. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis July 19, 2012 at 8:35 am - Reply

    I read this a couple of years ago and liked it so much, I gave it to my sister. It’s a a haunting book, and also an educational one (how could I have never known why Liberia was named?)

    Iris – I just finished reading your review of The Memory of Love, so I noticed the cover duplication too. Especially since this is being published another name, it makes the whole thing very confusing.

  8. Iris July 19, 2012 at 3:27 am - Reply

    I am a little sad to see the same cover image for the Australian version as on The Memory of Love. I know I shouldn’t complain about things like this, but it always confuses me and leaves me with a feeling that something special and unique has been taken from both books.

    I am glad you liked this and found it worthy of rereading as I have the Dutch translation sitting on my shelves..

  9. Kate July 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    I read this book while traveling back in 2008 and absolutely loved it. I haven’t given away my copy, which means that I do hope to go back and read it some day. I found it to be very vividly written so that I was right there in the middle of the plot. It is a very compelling story that has stayed with me even now, 4 years later.

  10. MoniqueReads July 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I didn’t realize that this was the same book as Someone Knows My Name, which has been on my TBR list for way to long.

    Now that I found out that it has been burned in other countries I am going to have to bump it up on the list.

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