Chad Bearden's Reviews > The Bondwoman's Narrative

The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts
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May 20, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, history, biography-memoirs-essays
Read in May, 2009

Given the proper context by a very enlightening introductory essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (that is about half of this volume's content), the novel written by Hannah Crafts is a pretty remarkable piece of writing, not only for its insight into the life of a slave, but also for the rather clever and immenantly amateur way in which it is written.

Ms. Crafts novel is a hodge-podge of styles and genres with entire passages practically lifted straight from the works of Dickens and Poe and the like. She jumps from Dickensian social commentary to gothic horror to Twain-like humor to melodramatic slave narrative, without any kind of connecting tissue to tie it neatly together. You get the sense that upon reading the original works, Ms. Crafts liked them so much, she confiscated entire paragraphs and themes and put them to work to tell her own story. As a whole, the work is kind of a mess, but a very interesting mess.

I recently read Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" which deals with a similar era, but to be frank, is written by a real author. Due to his upbringing and education and formal training as a writer, its obvious to see that his Pulitzer winning novel is superior as a consistent work of literary art. But to dismiss "The Bondwoman's Narrative" because it not consistent and literarily sloppy is to miss the point entirely. And that is where knowing the context of this work becomes so important.

Enter Robert Louis Gates, Jr., a historian who goes to great lengths to share from where he believes this work originated, and why he thinks that. In essence, he provides very convincing evidence that Hannah Crafts was a pseudonym taken by an actual escaped slave who, upon stealing her freedom, traveled to New Jersey where she started a family, then wrote this novel. Not only that, but he provides further evidence that, although the author claims that this is totally a work of fiction, much of what she writes can actually be traced to real people and real locations in North Carolina. And given the historical accuracy of some of the novel's content, one could extrapolate futher than many (though not all) of the events written about could actually be based on Ms. Craft's actual experiences.

Now, Mr. Gates is no David McCullough, but the introductory portion of this volume creates an impressive picture of what this novel represents. Sure, Styron might be a superior writer of fiction, but his writings are based on research (second-hand, by definition) and speculation. David McCullough might be a superior historian, subtly embellishing the facts at hand to draw an engaging narrative from documented history.

But Hannah Crafts is almost more impressive because she was not formally trained researcher, and didn't need to be. To her, this largley seems to be a first-hand account. She didn't need any formal education, as she rather cleverly is able to borrow what she needs from numerous great writers to whom she had been exposed.

Some may read this and be bored by the language or lack of a strong plot, but the history buff inside me really enjoyed this for what it was: a first-hand account of a dark and intersting time in our history, written from the perspective of a female slave, a class of people with a very small voice in the historical record. On those terms, this was a fascinating read, and to anyone of a like mind, I highly recommend it.
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