"The Book Of Negroes"

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
(Published as Someone Knows My Name in the US, Australia and New Zealand)

I read this one for our Book Club's August meeting, but it's also my first book for the Canadian Book Challenge. I thought it would be great for both because it should lend itself to good conversation, and it showed me a part of Canadian history that I was completely unfamiliar with. Not a part I'm proud of, but a part every Canadian needs to know.

We had our Book Club meeting tonight but it was a small group, which is normal for summer now that I think of it. We probably should have scheduled this book for a different time of year. We had a good discussion, but it's always better with more people and more viewpoints to consider; it would be hard to read this story and not develop strong feelings about it. It has received much high praise and I'm aware that anything I say will seem insignificant in comparison, but I'm going to try anyway.

It really isn't just a book; it's an experience. It's been a while since I read anything this remarkable. The main character, Aminata, is so vibrant, so real, that I have a hard time remembering it's fiction. It seems more like a memoir, and possibly the best memoir I've ever read. Hill has his hand on this woman's pulse... no, he puts your hand on this woman's pulse all the way through the book. You can practically hear her breathing.

The writing is good to the point where you aren't even aware you're reading it. It's just happening to you. It takes you away, to Africa, South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia, Africa again and then London. It's deep and rich and full of life. I know this word is quickly becoming overused but I have to say it; it truly is magnificent.

It is brutally honest, and yet not brutal; it is sexually plain-spoken, without being voyeuristic; it is chastening, but not preachy; and it is beautiful and heart-breaking and inspiring without being lofty, or maudlin or cliched. Lawrence Hill knows what he's doing.
The Book Of Negroes is an actual historical military document. It was the ledger in which Black Loyalists registered before being transported by ship from New York to Nova Scotia, with the promise of freedom and land once they arrived. To get on the list, each one had to prove he/she had supported the British during the American Revolutionary War. This book follows the story of one slave, Aminata Diallo, from the time she was savagely removed from her African home and parents at the age of eleven, to her voyage to Nova Scotia and beyond. If you're thinking you've read similar stories before, please don't let that stop you from picking this one up. It's on a whole other level.

It's hard to explain how a book about the slave trade, and about the horrors and cruelty the slaves were subjected to could be so beautiful. It is gut-wrenching at times, but this wonderful strong woman, Aminata, somehow finds a way to fight through despair and keep on living, even through unimaginable indignities, loss and pain that left me feeling both outraged and responsible.

Aminata's husband was the slave of another plantation owner, which meant they saw each other only a few times over the course of her life. He risked his life every time he set out to find her, but he followed her movements as well as he could through the "fishnet", a loose network of slaves who passed information back and forth. She loved him and remained faithful to him to the end of her life, though most of the time she didn't know if he was dead or alive.  I especially loved the parts of the story where he somehow found her and they were able to be husband and wife for a couple of days. Their pure joy at being together was beautiful.

There is heart-rending misery in Aminata's story, living side by side with a contagious joy. She found meaning and purpose in helping other women deliver their babies, taking care of the sick, sharing her shelter and small stores of supplies with anyone who needed them and teaching others to read and write. She is inspiring and flawed. She is real.

I think this character is going to be remembered and celebrated for a long, long time. The book's timeless message will be just as profound 50 years from now. Everything about "The Book Of Negroes" convinces me it will become a classic.

I was very fortunate to receive the Hard Cover Illustrated Edition for Christmas and I have to say - it is stunning. There are maps, paintings, photographs and copies of many of the historical documents discussed in the book, all of which added depth and reality to the story.

I can't recommend this one highly enough. At some point, someone in your world is going to  refer to it, so if you need an excuse for buying another new book, tell yourself you'll need to be able to talk about it. If I was a wealthy person I would buy a copy for every member of my family and friends. Instead, I'll just start loaning out the copy I have. I could buy a paperback to pass around, but I don't want anyone to miss out on the added dimension of the photos and illustrations.

This book is special in so many ways, one of which is that when you finish the last page and close the cover, you feel like you want to be a better person. You want to try harder to make other lives easier. You want to be as strong, as noble as Aminata. She is a heroine for the ages.

Do yourself a great favor and read it. I'm sure you'll be glad you did; stories like this just don't come along that often.


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