In some ways, this reminds me of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky which is another instance in which the story behind a book is just as interesting as the book itself. My first online search for information about The Bondwoman’s Narrative pulled up not information about the narrative itself, but an outline of events about Henry Louis Gates Jr’s discovery and analysis of the manuscript, the proposed theories surrounding its authorship by Hannah Crafts (a pseudonym), and its journey to publication. Which admittedly is fascinating. I’d been unsure whether to include this VMC in this month’s reading, but the story behind the story cinched the deal for me.

As fascinating as it is, however, I became more interested in the story behind the story and almost forgot about the narrative itself; there are about a hundred pages of text before the novel begins and the introduction is fascinating, but in its efforts to illuminate the various possible identities for Hannah Crafts, much of the story’s plot is revealed along with abundant information about the actions of the characters therein.

I would have preferred the introduction be presented as an appendix (but this is a pet peeve of mine, being so spoiler-phobic, and simultaneously being an orderly reader who would prefer to begin at the beginning and read straight through); but, the appendices are filled with their own interesting information (e.g. detailed description of how the manuscript was authenticated) so there wasn’t much room there for more, I’d guess. So I read about 20 pages of the Introduction and then I jumped ahead to read the novel, and I jumped back to the Introduction when I had finished Hannah Craft’s novel.

butbutButBUT…the backstory is gripping and vital, contextually, to a more complete understanding of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, so I am not actually complaining about this (even if it kinda sounds that way). Here’s the thing though: forget about all the history behind it for a second…The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a gripping tale. If you want to hear a little more about it (spoiler-free), click the Continue link.Apparently the author was heavily influenced by books like Bleak House and Jane Eyre (I’ve only read Jane Eyre of those two, but I’m not sure I would have spotted the connections, although scholars have pointed out many direct similarities between TBW’sN and these two texts) and there are all kinds of creepy and dramatic events that pull the reader into the story.

A hatchet with hair still stuck to the heft, trees haunted by spirits still furious at their unjust treatment while alive, women driven mad, conniving business dealings (and, yes, this includes the business of human trade): this is not a dry, historical narrative, but a fantastic yarn. Nonetheless, a yarn with considerable import. As potentially the first known novel written by an African American woman, this novel is significant for being one of few of that time period that took the author’s race as the norm.

Unlike other narratives of that time period, which were sometimes even written under pseudonyms by white women pretending to write an “escape-from-slavery” chronicle (true abolitionists or simply opportunists who envied Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incredible success with her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin), the black characters in The Bondwoman’s Narrative are never described in stereotypical terms and the presumption is that characters are black, unless otherwise described.

This is the exception rather than the rule for manuscripts dating to this time period, so it’s certainly possible to read this novel for scholarly reasons, but too much emphasis on its importance might discourage readers who, if they just approached this as a 19th-Century Sentimental novel, might just find it a good read. Surely a book can be both: important and enjoyable.

Anyone else read something lately that they were surprised to find themselves truly enjoying, even though they might have originally chosen the book because it was culturally or historically significant?

[Note: Other Reads Planned with Black History Month 2010 in mind: Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Paul Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) which just arrived on my doorstep last night, and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).]