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The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Lawrence Hill / Paperback / 512 Pages / Book is published 2010-04-01 by Black Swan

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    2 Reviews
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    • More +
      11.04.2011 22:25
      Very helpful



      The life story of a slave telling the story of slavery and other historical events in the USA

      The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
      Published by Black Swan
      Number of Pages 498
      ISBN 978-0-552-77548-9

      This book by the Canadian author Lawrence Hill is published as 'Someone Knows My Name 'in the USA , Australia and New Zealand but in the UK as well as his home country of Canada it is called ' The Book of Negroes'. The inspiration for the writing of the book came from Hill's interest in a historical document called the Book of Negroes. This book was a record of those slaves taken from the USA and freed in Canada originally with the promise of being taken back to Africa. Copies of this document can be found in the USA at the New York Public Library, the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia) and the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C. It can also be seen in Canada in the Nova Scotia Public Archives and in the National Archives of Canada.

      I am not sure which title I prefer as the one we have has rather unpleasant overtones as 'negro' is not really a word that is considered very pleasant and I chose not to take this book with me when I was travelling and read it at home as I really wasn't that comfortable with the title. Having said that I do think Mr Hill could have found a more interesting title to use instead as ' Someone Knows my Name' sounds a bit chick lit or even mystery rather than a title for this story. I think I would have chosen an African name or even 'Aminata's Story' would have been better. Still I am not the author so I guess he can choose his own book title! I think the title in the USA etc comes from when the slaves were in the awful slave ship they would call out each other's names just to reconfirm their identity , or indeed had survived the night but it is still a pretty naff title.

      This is an old fashioned epic style of novel in the way that it spans a person's entire life from childhood to old age but also tells the history of the slave trade through this person's experience. Lawrence Hill won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in 2008 and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2007.

      We first meet Aminata with her loving parents in rural Mali. She has been taught to read and about the Qur'an by her father and learned the skill of "catching babies" from her midwife mother. Our heroine Aminata Diallo is an 11-year-old child when she sees her parents brutally killed and is taken from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for three long months to reach the sea in a chain of fellow captives. She is kept in the cages at the shore and then sent on a ship to the Carolinas.

      The description of the slave's voyage on the ship is truly horrifying. Hill describes all the awful conditions, the way the slaves were treated and I was really quite disturbed by many of the images he portrays. From the very early part of the book we are thrust into the brutal horrors that Aminata has to live through and in realty there are not many light sections of this book but somehow Mr Hill manages to avoid the reader becoming too overwhelmed by the awfulness of the events by some lighter moments for the heroine.

      Aminata is a bit like Forrest Gump in the way that she happens to be there when historic events take place. Hill uses his heroine to tell the events in history by placing her in each situation. This works to a large extent and I was really hooked from page one but at times I did feel that perhaps the heroine was a little too talented compared to other slaves and really had a lot of lucky breaks throughout her life. I am not saying her life was easy as she had some terribly tragic things happen to her but at the same time she did seem to pick up things like languages, reading and other skills very easily while other slaves were not capable. At times this annoyed me more than at others but I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction and obviously the heroine needed to have these talents in order to be able to be in the place at the time.

      During the story we are taken from Africa to North America then Canada and England and finally back to Africa. This is a work of fiction but it is also a disturbing and moving story which is set firmly to actual historic events, including the Revolutionary War and of course the horrific Atlantic slave trade. Throughout the novel Hill includes relevant historical data which makes you forget at times that this is a work of fiction and also makes the read even more compelling.

      I found the book very easy to read in that the style of writing was not challenging, simple sentences and a chatty sort of style. Most of the novel was told through Aminata's voice starting as she was as a child. It was not an easy read however from the content point of view as the descriptions and some of the really frightful experiences that some of the slaves and indeed Aminata went through were quite graphically explained. I really liked the way that the author, by talking through Aminata lets the reader sees how a slave would have seen things for the first time. For example we see the sea as a vast and never ending body of water, the slave ship is described by Aminata and her thought s about the slave market and Charles Town when she first arrives there. We are made very aware of how petrified these poor people must have felt undergoing these terrifying and cruel experiences.

      We learn that it is not only the white men that are involved in the slave trade. I west Africa there were many of the native tribes who went and stole people from other tribes then sold them to the whites for transportation. I did know this prior to reading this book but I did pause for thought and wondered how many of those West Africa nations with tribes who stole people have also felt the weight of guilt experienced by Britain and the USA over the slave trade. People seem to forget this aspect. Some of these tribes became quite rich at the expense of the poor captives and had they fought the whites instead of colluding with them then maybe the slave trade might have died out. The main problem was that the tribes were not united and fought against each other, what they needed to do was get together and fight against the white men stealing people.

      This is no 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' although at times Aminata does have relatively pleasant owners. It is more like 'Roots' in the way that it is more honest than Beecher Stowe's rather idyllic story. Aminata is a powerful heroine, she is strong willed and determined to fulfill her ambition of returning to Africa and at times she sacrifices other things for this ambition or hope. The characters are all believable and despite my criticism of the fact that Aminata seems to be rather too talented at times I did find her an appealing personality and an interesting character and I certainly was willing her to succeed in her life and fulfill her ambition.

      Aminata has ups and downs , she meets people both good and bad, she loves and loses friends and family all the while she is strong and has a return to Africa as her focus.

      I have already said that Aminata 's story is set within historic events and indeed during the American War for Independence, she finds herself on the British side .At the end of this she is sent, as a freed slave, to Nova Scotia . She is selected to be the scribe for the historic "Book of Negroes", a British military ledger that recorded the names and details of some 3,000 black Loyalists being allowed to leave the American territory for Shelburne Harbour. Unfortunately things don't go quite to plan and there are more obstacles ahead for Aminata.

      As an old lady Aminata goes to England and is asked by abolitionist politicians in London to tell her story. This lady really has seen a lot of history in her life and as I said this is an epic story of one lady's life but it also tells the story of slavery and the history if America at this time too.
      I was really drawn into this book and although I wouldn't say I enjoyed it as the topic is not really to be enjoyed. I did find it an interesting and gripping read. I couldn't put it down at times as I wanted to know what would happen to the heroine or the people she was with at the time.

      I would recommend this as a book of fiction but one based firmly within a historic series of events. I was very moved by the story and found the book hard to put down.

      Reviews from other more literary people than I am:
      "Lawrence Hill's hugely impressive historical work is completely engrossing and deserves a wide, international readership" - Washington Post
      "Wonderfully written...populated by vivid characters and rendered in fascinating detail." - New York Times
      " A masterpiece, daring and impressive in its geographic, historical and human reach, convincing in its narrative art and detail." - The Globe and Mail
      "Aminata is a heroic figure...you can never forget this character. She embeds herself in your heart" -Toronto Star
      "Richly meticulous recreation of late 18th century slave life...in its grand historical sweep, The Book of Negroes succeeds admirably in giving voice to a captive people who were for so long kept mute." -Sunday Times

      "A powerful indictment of the way in which so many innocent victims were robbed of everything dear to them." - Yorkshire Evening Post Epic.

      There were many more I could have chosen but I think you get the theme. This book has received critical acclaim throughout the world where it has been published.

      I would recommend this book if you have any interest in history, you like a good story with lots of ups and downs and are willing to put aside the fact that Aminata is exceptionally talented compared to most other slaves so her story is not typical.

      Thanks or reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.


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      • More +
        25.05.2010 14:07
        Very helpful



        A book I thoroughly enjoyed

        It is the year 1745, set in deep west Africa, where Aminata Diallo, aged 11, and her family live a peaceful life, but are also fully aware of the dangers which lay beyond their village. People are being 'kidnapped' and strangers are lurking. It was only a matter of time before Aminata gets caught. We follow her agonizing journey, both mentally and physically, as she, with many others, are shackled and made to travel for over three moons (months) to the coast where the slave ships await to take them to the western world. This is just the beginning of her long, desperate journey, which sees this poor girl continually fight to survive as others wilt and die around her.

        The Book of Negroes is a novel which spans 57 years, and during this time we travel with Aminata, who narrates the story, from Africa, North America, Canada and England. Not only is it a fascinating story, but also one which relates to actual past events, including the Revolutionary War and of course the Atlantic slave trade. This is one woman's journey, which can also be applied to many others who were enslaved, then eventually promised freedom, but all at a cost. In this book the author has made her a true hero and an inspirational character.

        The author, Lawrence Hill, has written a captivating and intelligent story based on an absolute abhorrent act of man. It is beautifully written, which really tugs at the heart, and makes you realize the true definition of survival. I did not find it depressing as it is written so well, but it certainly made me angry and scream at the past. There is a huge amount of historical data included in the novel which makes the read even more compelling. The novel is also one of hope and freedom, which in itself is inspiring. Hill won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for this excellent piece of work.

        Hill really explains, in great detail, the way in which a slave (Aminata) sees things for the first time. Through Aminata's eyes we see the vast never ending sea, a prison as a slave ship and an established town (Charles Town), as examples, for the very first time. Everything, both visually and verbally were terrifyingly strange to the enslaved Africans.

        I did feel that Aminata, was a very lucky lady through her whole ordeal, from being captured to gaining freedom. For me, a slight niggle, was that she managed to survive many disasters and thus seemed to have more lives than a cat! She was intelligent and managed not only to learn how to read and write (English), but also to speak various African languages as well as English. This side of her did seem a little far fetched at times to me. However, I did enjoy her, as an independent, self sufficient woman, who fought for her rights. Most of her story was darkened by tragedy, but along the way she met some wonderful characters who highlighted the need for friendship and support during troubled times.

        The book emphasizes not only the impact that being a slave had on the individual, but also how the most of the slaves joined together and formed small communities. This was truly encouraging, as so many of the slaves came from different tribes and spoke in various languages, however they still had a common bond and supported each other. They also had a huge network and helped each other find lost members, which emphasized the community bond.

        What I found really interesting was the fact that many native Africans actually supported the slave trade, caught the slaves (as they knew the terrain better than any foreigner), and earned a good living from it. By doing this it gave them a type of immunity, thus protecting them from the harrowing ordeal. These traders had absolutely no compassion towards their fellow men, but instead showed a new kind of ruthlessness by treating the slaves like wild trapped animals. It was most certainly a case of 'survival of the fittest'.

        Not all westerners were bad. The whites were known as 'toubabu' to the enslaved black race. Many were treating and using their slaves appallingly, raping, branding and selling their children as commodities. On the other hand the book introduces some strong opponents to the slave trade who helped to bring some form of dignity back into their lives. These, with some out spoken slaves, helped the gradual process towards freedom.

        The title of the book 'The book of negroes' seems rather degrading. I was actually a bit embarrassed to show the front cover to anyone and always faced it down. In America the book has another title 'Someone Knows my Name' which seems a bit bland and certainly not hard hitting. The reason for the title is that 'The Book of Negroes' is an actual document that still exists. It is the book the British used when transporting the freed slaves from America to other British colonies. In effect it was an official register which should be looked at positively as it was moving towards the abolition of slavery.

        The book is a fictional novel, which must be kept in mind, so it is slightly over dramatized in a few places. However, it still makes a great read which has plenty of moral implications. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was a haunting narrative, which really shouts out the horrors of the enslavement of innocent people. It also highlights the more positive road to the abolishment of slavery. So, packed with historical content alongside a super story this truly is a superb novel.

        Published by Black Swan
        Number of Pages 498
        ISBN 978-0-552-77548-9


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