The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

I’ve been putting off writing this up because I was waiting to have enough brain power to do it justice.  That’s never going to happen, so this will have to do.

This was published in 2009 but I wasn’t paying attention to Canadian writing at the time, so I missed it.  I got it as a birthday present from my parents but it wasn’t that far up my priority list to read until a friend in Canada was singing its praises.

It is a first person narrative of Aminata Diallo and starts with her childhood in a West African village where she is the daughter of a goldsmith and the village midwife.  Her father is a Muslim and owns a Koran, so Aminata is, crucially, basically literate when she is kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 11.  There is a three-month walk to the coast, where she is put on a slave ship and taken to Charles Town and sold to an indigo planter in the Carolina low country.  She grows up and is sold to a Jewish merchant in Charles Town.  When the Revolutionary War breaks out they travel to New York City, where Aminata (now called “Meena” because nobody can be bothered with her long name) runs away from her owner and starts working for the British, eventually becoming the scribe who records the “Book of Negroes”, the record of free and enslaved black people taken to Nova Scotia when the British abandon the thirteen colonies.  She lives in Nova Scotia for many years until she becomes involved in the project to establish Freetown in  Sierra Leone.  The narrative ends with her in London, working with the abolitionist movement.

Readers may recall that back in February when I read The Unkindness of Ghosts, I confidently declared that would be the best book I would read all year.  This might be better.  Despite one being a straight historical fiction and the other set on a spaceship, they are in many ways quite similar.  The descriptions of slave community and relations between the slaves and masters are come from exactly the same place.  In both there is a mixed-race intermediary figure (The Surgeon in Unkindness, Mamed the overseer here who teaches Aminata to read) who through their relatively empowered position helps the protagonist.

The best parts of this book, for me, were the first half – the journey and life on the Carolina plantation.  Aminata is a child who has never seen a white person or been far from home and it is all utterly alien to her.  Hill successfully treads the fine line between showing the otherness of Aminata’s experience and making the book difficult or annoying to read by ingenious use of language.  It’s harrowing stuff but the prose is captivating.

After Aminata is taken away from the plantation, she no longer has the community and culture that she had there.  She still makes friends but the settings don’t feel as vibrant and real.

There’s so much to think about with this book.  Most obvious is contempt that the slaves feel towards white people who think they are doing them a favour by, say, not beating them and for not grasping that, you know, owning people is wrong.  She is confused about how a Jewish man is OK with slavery, and gets really angry with the American rebels referring to their relations with the British as slavery.   It may take years, but white people always comprehensively betray her eventually.

There’s the thing about slavery that I’ve never understood, the cognitive dissonance involved in white men fathering children with slave women and being OK with their own children being slaves.

The story is painful and disturbing but it is also inspiring and positive.  Aminata is a wonderful character who we grow up and see the world through new eyes with. It’s long but I couldn’t put it down.  I cannot recommend this enough.

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