Shane's Reviews > The Book of Negroes

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
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's review
Jan 11, 2010

really liked it
Read in January, 2010

I found this book to be the feminine parallel of "Roots," that I read many years ago, with Aminata Diallo, a Mother Courage like character, traversing the history and geography of what was the prime trading area of the slave industry in the second half of the 18th century.

Plucked from her village as an 11-year old, she endures a harrowing voyage to America, is traded, raped, robbed of her baby and husband, and arrives in New York at the time of the War of Independance. She ships out to Nova Scotia as part of the Loyalist evacuation (a place which in the book is portrayed as more inhospitable to blacks than New York) and finally "adventures" to Freetown, Sierra Leone in search of her true home.

But it was at this point that the message came home to me, one I have wrestled with as well in my novels and as an immigrant. Aminata, despite many trials upon returning to Africa, does not reach her village home in the end. She winds up in England, front lining for the Abolishionists in their attempts to ban this heinous trade. Home for Aminata (and for all of us displaced ones) is in the present, wherever she is, for the home of the past has disappeared and can never be recovered- that is a very telling message that is perhaps obscured amidst Aminata's many adventures.

The other strong message is that this is not about blacks vs. whites - both sides have some redeeming characters and some pretty nasty ones too. This story is about using might for profit and of its consequences – a message still valid today. One veteran slave trader says, "There is no profit in benevolence." And as for slavery, his comment is, "Everybody is doing it - the British, the French, the Dutch, the Americans. Even the bloody Africans have been mixed up in the trade for an eternity. If we didn't take the slaves, the other Africans would kill them, butcher them live." Given what has happened even in the last century, in places like Rwanda, I can't refute his cold-hearted logic. Hill re-affirms, that despite our colour, we are capable of good and evil in equal measure. Aminata's redemption is that through her suffering she is cleansed of whatever bad she may have been capable of doing in her life and is pointed towards securing the greater good of mankind. She truly is a soul finding her path to salvation by carrying her cross on earth.

My only peeve was that as the author was covering over half a century of history, some sections were narrated over very quickly, particularly Aminata's later years in Nova Scotia and Freetown and this period was out of balance with her life story in the "Thirteen Colonies". Then again, in today's attention span deprived world, I am not sure who would have the patience to read a Book of Negroes I, II and III either (which is what this book could have extended to, given its rich source material) .

An author who undertakes to document his racial origins is a bold individual, because implicit in that investigation is the possibility that not only the noble but the ignoble would be uncovered. And Hill has demonstrated that courage admirably and sensitively in this book.

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message 1: by Arjun (new)

Arjun What a tremendous review, Shane. This book has been sitting on a bookshelf somewhere, my mind probably, for quite some time. I've read dozens of reviews. But none of them has compelled me to read the book. Until now. Thanks.

Shane Thanks Arjun. I have written a similar novel - yet to be published, along the same lines, tracing my lineage in Sri Lanka. I can identify with the struggle Hill must have gone through. Enjoy the book!

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