Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Book of Negroes - Book Review

The Book of Negroes (Canada)
Somebody Knows my Name (USA)
By Lawrence Hill
Harper Collins 2007
Lawrence Hill Website

This is a great novel. I read it in 2 days and could not put it down. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is the story of Aminata Diallo, a young African girl from somewhere deep in Western Africa (possibly Mali), who at age 11 was stolen from her village and taken to the Slave Coast. There she was sent to Charles Town in South Carolina and she was sold as a slave to an Indigo plantation owner and merchant named Appleby.

Back in Africa, Meena (as she was named in Charles Town - because noone could pronounce Aminata properly) had been taught by her mother how to be a midwife. They called it catching babies.

In the Thirteen colonies, Meena was a slave on the indigo plantation for several years. When Meena was 16 she gave birth to a baby boy by a fellow African slave who also arrived in Charlestown on the same boat she did. When her son was 10 months old, both Meena and her son were sold - to different families.

During this time on the indigo plantation, Meena was secretly taught the basics of English - reading, writing and speaking. This was against the rules as no slave was permitted to be educated. The white plantation owners preferred to think of their slaves as savage ignorant people from Africa and that was how they were treated.

When Meena moved to her new home in Charles Town, she was set up as a contractor for midwifery jobs. She had to give a certain percentage of her earnings to the Master. She was also taught to read and write more fluently so she could keep the master's books. Meena spent about 15 years in Charles Town. Then one day her master took her north to New York which was still under British rule. That was when the riots began. During the riots, Meena escaped from her master and became a free woman. She survived by teaching other negroes how to read and write.

When the British pulled out of the 13 Colonies, they were willing to help those Negroes who helped them in their battles against the Americans. Over 3000 black slaves went to the Maritime's in 1783, mostly to Nova Scotia. In Nova Scotis they were told they would be free, they could farm their own land. Meena gives birth to another child - a daughter named May. But the Negroes were assigned to a slum area called Birch Town. The Negroes were willing to work for a lower wage, so white people started losing jobs and eventually they started rioting against the blacks. During these riots, Meen's daughter May was whisked off to safety by her white employers. Meena gave up looking for her daughter after 5 years.

Then came rumours of a free country for slaves in Africa. So Meena decided to go back to Africa. There is nothing more for her in America.

In Freetown (now the capital of Liberia) Meena tried to find ways of getting back to her home village in Mali. It took her about 10 years to finally bribe a slave driver to take her up river. A few weeks after the trip began Meena overheard the slave driver saying that he wanted to sell her as well. So once again Meena ran away, back to the coast where she found a ship that could take her to England.

In England slavery was in the process of being outlawed. Noone could buy any new slaves in England - although slaves previously purchased were either kept or given their freedom.

Meena helped the abolitionist movement to force the English Parliament to change the laws. The abolitionists then wanted to write Meena's story, so they could edit her words. Meena refused to allow them to change any of her words. She wrote her life story and then finally allowed herself to stop running. By this time she was about 60 years old.

Totally unexpectedly Meena was reunited with her daughter in England. Her daughter had been lost to her for 15 years and was now a young woman. That was something I did not expect and was very pleased that at last Meena had found one of her children.

This was a very well written book. As I said above, once I started reading, I could not put it down. I like Aminata. She is a strong female character. She quickly learned that power came from language and literacy.

This book has been very well researched, and the details of the slave chains, the slave ships and the plantations is totally riveting. Also the research of the British during the revolution, and life in Nova Scotia and in Freetown.

Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes (published in the United States as Someone Knows My Name) was awarded the overall Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book at a ceremony in Franschhoek, South Africa on May 18th, 2008.

I read this book for the Second Canadian Challenge.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a fabulous saga. I will add it to my reading list. Do you know what province the author is from? I'm doing the sea to shining sea challenge for the Canadian book challenge.

Historia said...

Lawrence Hill was born and raised in Toronto, and currently lives in Burlington, Ontario.

John Mutford said...

I've wanted to read this one for some time as I know so little of the black population of Nova Scotia or their history.

Sorry, I've been silent by the way. You're right- it's just a really hectic time for us. Moving in is a lot of work: unpacking, stocking up, getting new health cards, driver's licenses, a new vehicle, and starting a new job-- whew!

Wanda said...

This one is already on my tbr list, your review confirms that "A Book of Negroes" is a definite must read!

Anonymous said...

I just finished this book about a week ago, and it was excellent. I could not put it down, very well written and made me much more informed as to what actually happend then.