TSS - Canada Reads: Spotlight on The Book of Negroes (& special contest)

The Book 
The Book of Negroes
Lawrence Hill 
© 2007

“Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary.”

When Aminata Diallo sits down to pen the story of her life in London, England, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, she has a world of experience behind her. Abducted from her village in West Africa as an eleven-year-old child and forced to walk in a coffle – a string of slaves – for months to the sea, Aminata is put to work on an indigo plantation on the sea islands of South Carolina. She survives by using midwifery skills learned at her mother’s side and by drawing on a strength of character inherited form both parents. But Aminata remains trapped, narrowly avoiding the violence that cuts short so many lives around her. Eventually, she has the chance to register her name in the “Book Of Negroes,” a historic British military ledger allowing 3000 Black Loyalists passage on ships sailing from Manhattan to Nova Scotia.

This remarkable novel transports the reader from an African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from a soured refuge in Nova Scotia to the coast of Sierra Leone, in a back to Africa odyssey of 1200 former slaves. The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent fiction, a woman who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.

Mother – Daughter (in law) Book Chat

Instead of the traditional book review, I decided to provide some highlights of a discussion I had with my mother-in-law Alvina, who shares my passion for reading. Her home is truly a book-lover’s paradise, with reading materials nestled in every cranny, fiction and non-fiction covering an array of topics, lands and eras. And once you’ve found a novel to spend some time with,  there is her personal hideout - a beautifully designed den awaiting any bibliophile’s arrival, complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves, and a deliciously comfy leather chair to curl up in while reading.
Exploring the themes and history behind this novel with her, provided me many insights into the story that I had not thought of during my reading. It was terrific to share our thoughts on the topics that Lawrence Hill covers in his novel, as our reading, and personal, histories provided contrasting, yet complimentary views and opinions.

Canada Reads is an event that Alvina introduced me to a few years back, so when I asked what motivated her to read The Book of Negroes I already had a pretty clear idea that she had read it as one of this years line-up. However she also stated that her enjoyment of the Canada Reads event was a terrific way of being introduced to books and authors that she otherwise may never have experienced. She recalled being a follower of Canada Reads since Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of A Lion won the competition in 2002.

Having finished The Book of Negroes long before me, I asked Alvina what she enjoyed most from the book. It was the research that the author put into the novel that first came to mind, which I enjoyed hearing about because it wasn’t something that I had put much thought into. Alvina goes on to describe that Lawrence Hill showed a dedication to the historical accuracy of his book by making sure he had every detail strongly resolved before setting his story in motion. The presentation of the story and it’s historical perspective was also given without an accusatory tone, rather it was a well-rounded tale of one woman’s life and struggles during a horrible time.

Another thing, that Alvina enjoyed while reading was the writing style itself. Although it is filled with factual and historical incidents covering a long period of time and many different locales, it had a polished style that was easy to read and follow. The story being told from the main characters, Aminata’s, point of view was also wonderful as her recurring journal style narrative kept the story flowing smoothly.

When discussing Aminata, the main story-teller, Alvina was incredibly impressed with how strong this woman was. Her will to survive despite the tumultuous life she has been handed is extremely admirable. Aminata is unwilling to let life’s hardships break her, and struggles to overcome what holds her back. I found it especially interesting when Alvina noted that not only is Aminata’s determination applaudable, but also that of many of the secondary characters in the novel, because not only does the author show the trials the slave must face, but also that of other individuals involved, which is a perspective not often visible.

The Book of Negroes is a book that shows a part of history that many feel has no positive side, so when I asked Alvina what her favourite or most memorable part of the story was I wasn’t expecting such an insightful answer.  But her answer made me consider how Aminata really was an exceptionally strong woman to persevere and find happiness in a situation that seemed to defy comfort or pleasure. Alvina’s answer to my question was to point out a part of the story in which Aminata has found a structured and safe life as a slave. She is not a free person, yet she is free from fear and manages to maintain a strong friendship, and also develop a relationship with a local gentleman. Alvina found this part of the book was enjoyable because it again showed Aminata’s strength to find happiness and live her life fully.

Alvina also mentioned how intrigued she was by Aminata’s descriptions of returning to her African home, to search out the tiny village of her youth. It was the characters resolve to find her heritage and put to rest the questions that had followed her throughout her life. Was her homeland what she remembered? How had things changed in her absence and would she find happiness upon returning to the place she had often dreamed of?

In the end, The Book of Negroes was not what Alvina had expected, but it was a story that she enjoyed more than she had anticipated. Her copy will retain a spot in her library, as she feels the book has much to be gained from future readings. When asked who she thought the book would be a good read for, Alvina’s first comment was one that I agree with fully; you do not need to be of African ancestry to enjoy this. The Book of Negroes is a wonderful look into the life of a slave, but also it provides a great perspective of all heritages, from British, Canadian, American and African, that were involved in this particular historical time. The Book of Negroes is a novel that can be read both as an educational text and as a moving story of personal strength.

So there you have it, I know I left out a lot of things we discussed, but I think this covers some of the most important aspects of our discussion. I hope that you enjoyed reading this re-cap, as much as I enjoyed participating in it.

Huge thanks to Alvina for having me over for a book chat! I enjoyed myself so much, I’m thinking we are totally gonna have to do this again – considering the size of your TBR pile I know we can find out another book to read and chat about over frozen yoghurts xoxox

About The Author 
Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill’s fiction and non-fiction books have received glowing reviews, won numerous awards and brought him a legion of fans.
Hill’s writing often explores issues of identity and belonging, as in his first two novels: Any Known Blood (1997) and Some Great Thing (1992), which was read on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers.
His bestselling memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (2001), describes the lives of his black father and white mother, who emigrated from the U.S. to Canada.
The Book of Negroes, Hill’s third novel, was selected as one of the year’s best books by the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen and Quill & Quire. Published as Someone Knows My Name in the U.S., the book has proven equally popular south of the border.
Hill began his writing career as a reporter for the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press. He has won a National Magazine Award, as well as an American Wilbur Award for his film documentary, Seeking Salvation: A History of the Black Church in Canada.
His most recent non-fiction book, The Deserter's Tale: the Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq (2007), was co-written with Joshua Key and released in Canada, the U.S., Australia and numerous European countries. Hill grew up in Don Mills, Ontario, and now lives in Burlington, Ontario

Official Lawrence Hill Website

Lawrence Hill is very involved with school, and literary conferences as a speaker and also participates in book festivals giving readings and appearing in discussion panels. Check out his schedule here to find out about upcoming events where Lawrence Hill will be appearing.

Also highly recommended is the collection of audio clips to be found at the CBC online media archives. Some of the highlights include a passage read by the author, an explanation that gives a view on why The Book of Negroes has a different title for the US release, and also a clip of Hill discussing why story-telling is such an important thing for Aminata, the main narrator from The Book of Negroes.

The above video is an terrific interview with Lawrence Hill that I found via watchmojo.com and wanted to share.

About The Panelist
Avi Lewis

Avi Lewis is an incisive speaker and thinker, and for almost two decades, he’s used those skills as the host of a series of television programs — at home and abroad.
In 2008, Avi hosted the weekly television show Inside USA on the Al-Jazeera English television network. The series examines the issues at stake in the U.S. presidential election, taking Avi across the Americas, from Appalachia and Hawaii to Argentina and Haiti.
Avi’s previous programs include On The Map with Avi Lewis (international news analysis, 2007), The Big Picture with Avi Lewis (documentaries combined with town hall debates, 2006) and counterSpin (current affairs discussion, which Avi hosted and produced, 1998-2001). All three programs aired on CBC Newsworld.
Avi also hosted The New Music on Citytv (1996-98), and won a Gemini Award for his coverage of the 1993 federal election as MuchMusic’s political specialist.
He received another four Gemini nominations in 2004 for his first feature documentary, The Take. The documentary follows Argentina’s new movement of worker-run factories, and it won the International Jury prize at the American Film Institute festival in Los Angeles.

Avi Lewis presents 4 reasons why you should read The Book of Negroes in an interesting article on the Canada Reads 2009 blogsite. Here is a short summary of those reasons:

  • First, it’s a totally gripping page-turner of a novel.
  • Second, the central character Aminata Diallo is an unforgettable, original voice with a capacity for insight that rings as true as the call of a circling bird.
  • Third, the novel complicates one of our cherished Canadian myths. Ask any Canadian about slavery, and two of the first words you’re likely to hear are “Underground Railroad.”
  • Finally, the novel transports us into the living, breathing reality of one of those monumental historical facts that is too easy to file away in our minds and hearts with thumbnail images of frozen suffering.

I highly recommend reading this article in it’s entirety, and getting Avi’s full perspective on these 4 reasons.

And because I’m always thinking of songs that go along perfectly with books while I’m reading, here are some songs that Avi Lewis suggests for a playlist to accompany The Book of Negroes:

The Giveaway

Now, the official Canada Reads 2009 debates are coming up soon (March 2) and I’m just over halfway done with the books, so I thought it would be the perfect time for a giveaway! But you’re gonna half to work for this one :)

Just recently when I was reading through the Canada Reads blog, I came across a post where the blogger, Lee, discusses how Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale share the similarities of being stories told from the perspective of strong females who both must try to conquer a life of hardship and persecution.

There is a particular passage from The Book of Negroes where the main character says “I have long loved the written word, and come to see in it the power of the sleeping lion. This is my name. This is who I am. This is how I got here. In the absence of an audience, I will write down my story so that it waits like a restful beast with lungs breathing and heart beating.

Lee responds to this by saying “I think it’s that idea, above all, that I loved best in these two seemingly disparate books. It’s also why I get a bit testy when I hear of parents complaining about the more challenging titles featured on high school reading lists. Because isn’t the power that comes from words — be they brutal or depressing or political — exactly the kind of power that teens should be armed with as they prepare to graduate from high school?”

Yes, yes the giveaway – I’m getting there! What I would like is your opinion regarding this, it can be a simple sentence or you can rant away. Just read the blog post - Word Power: Lee muses on The Handmaid's Tale and The Book of Negroes and then come back here and let me know what you think.

Up for grabs is 3 copies of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, so that means I will randomly select 3 commentors to win! This is open to all readers worldwide and I will draw the winners Friday March 6 at midnight.

Previous Canada Reads 2009 Posts

© 2008-2010 Joanne Mosher of The Book Zombie. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

First, this is a lovely post. There's so much going on...and it's all interesting.

Second, I read the article. And grrr, because I always get peeved when I hear about attempts to ban books from high school reading lists or libraries. I don't think high school kids should be "protected" from reading about things that others deem controversial, or wrong, or even against their beliefs. Because this just promotes a culture where everyone goes along like sheep, blindly believing in things and spouting doctrines because they don't know any better. And also, they miss out on critical thinking skills. And awesome literature. Anyways, I think this is where the US education system has gone horribly wrong...not enough emphasis on challenging students and encouraging independent thinking.

Third, can I adopt your mother-in-law?

Chris said...

I had heard of this attempt at banning a few weeks ago (it made my Friday links). These are 17 year olds not 10 year olds. They should be able to handle the language and concepts. They will be legal adults in a year so I should hope so! As for the parent's concern over the feelings of the young women in the class, how about asking them, not speak for them?! I would think that many women would find the book to be of great importance and possibly open their eyes to some of the inequities in the world in relation to themselves.

Gavin said...

This is a fabulous post. I can't wait to get the book from my library!

Jeane said...

That was a great article. I don't think any books should ever be banned. In fact, I wish the Handmaid's Tale had been taught in my high school, I think I would have understood it better. I'd love a chance to read the Book of Negroes, it sounds wonderful.

gautami tripathy said...

Beautiful post! So much info in it. Loved going throught it all!

My TSS post is up!

Alyce said...

I have heard of The Handmaid's Tale, but I really didn't know what it was about before reading this. I hadn't heard of The Book of Negroes. Both sound like they would be good reads. I don't think that books should be banned from high school libraries or reading lists, but I can understand where parents are coming from.

I think that the parents have their children's best interests at heart, but are probably forgetting that they too read some things that were racy or upsetting in their day and they lived through it. I think it is natural for parents to be over-protective of their children, and to underestimate what they can handle reading.

Marny said...

I don't think books should be banned from schools and if 17-year-olds haven't realized that life sometimes is bleak and depressing, there in for a rude awakening once they leave school, I guess. And the parents have to understand that they can't shelter their kids from "real" life. Excellent post, thank you.

naida said...

sounds fascinating! I need to add this to my TBR.
I havent read The Handmaid’s Tale yet. But it does sound like both women in these books suffer harships.

wonderful, and informative post.

Nymeth said...

I loved this post, Joanne. And the book sounds fabulous. As for the article, things like that just drive me crazy. I think people who try to "protect" teens by banning books are a)extremely patronizing and b) deluding themselves about how much 17-year-olds actually know about things like sex, violence, etc. I don't have any children, but I imagine that after they're, say, 15 it becomes pretty much impossible to control every book they read, every movie they watch, etc. So the best strategy is to just be open enough that they feel they can discuss what they're reading and watching with you. And when they do, provide some context, help with any questions they have, make them think. For me, that's what effective parenting and teaching is about.

And in this case in particular...for me, The Handmaid's Tale is a book teens SHOULD be reading and discussing.

Bridget said...

Just dropping by to let you know we've posted this on Win A Book. Don't need to enter me in the contest.

Anonymous said...

I agree that anything that gets high school students to think has to be a good thing!

Thanks for the contest!

Tisa said...

Looks like an interesting read! LOVE the cover photo! Interesting comments in regards to the parents complaint - I think it should be made available as a class study but a parent should have the option of not allowing their children to participate. Thanks for the chance to win ! :)

sounders68 [at] gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing a giveaway. I haven't read either of the books. I want to, but haven't had a chance to get my hands on a copy, so I can't comment on how they relate to each other. But I did read the article, and I'd say that nothing angers me more than someone attempting to ban books. 17-year-olds are more than old enough to benefit from a book without there being the need to censor it for content. If we were talking about 10-year-olds then I could understand someone saying they should wait until they're older to read certain books, but to ban books for near-grown teenagers? Ridiculous.

Anyway, count me in please. Thanks!

Valorie said...

It seems a shame that people want to ban books from kids, but I can see their side of it. Books can be just as violent and full of sex as television shows. So, it really comes down to artistic expression, the value of literature and reading, and what kids can get out the experience. It's not like vegging out in front of a television while being pumped with negative images.

I'd love to be entered in the drawing.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read 'The handmaid's tale' yet so when i could understand what was written in the article I couldn't really relate it.

Where as, whether it is okay for teenagers to read such books, I say why not?
It will bring them closer to reality and considering how smart todays kids are they should be given an oppurtunity to study the book.

avalonne83 said...

Please enter me in the contest. Thanks.

avalonne83 [at] yahoo [dot] it

Ladytink_534 said...

Such a good review! So informative too!!!

MJ said...

Great article. as a teacher, I agree that a big problem in today's school is not challenging the students. We need to raise to bar so students will reach new heights.

Teddy Rose said...

First I want to thank you for the awesome post! It was very informative.

I read the article. IMO books should not be banned from high school. Teenagers have all hear foul language and know that there are bad things in the world. Unless a child is growing up on a deserted island with no outside contact. LOL! We can't shelter them so why not bring books with difficult and / or controversial topics into the high school classroom. At least there, there would be discussion led by an adult.

I blogged about your giveaway here:


teddyr66 at yahoo dot com

darbyscloset said...

I love your post sharing so much information on this author and his book... a great find!!! I also enjoyed our homework assignment...I have not read either of the books she quoted yet I feel strongly compelled to react to the high school banning of books. In high school and to an extent still to this day I have been handicapped with Rose Colored Glasses. In high school english courses it has well been established that confrontational (sp?) books are read and discussed. If it were not for my love of books, I may never of know about aspects of others lives that my rose colored parents "protected" me from. I grew tremendously during high school thanks to the books I was assigned to read for my classes.
Thank you for this awesome giveaway!
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Blodeuedd said...

I'd like to reat this book, I mean sure I knwo about the things that happened and so forth but I honestly have no deeper insight in the slavetrade.

Debdesk said...

Please include me in your drawing.

Deborah said...

I may be biased since "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of my favorite books, but I'm very sad that someone's trying to have it removed from Toronto's high school reading list.

I don't think it's too violent or depressing for a teen - just look at their video games! - and I think it's important that children learn why, exactly, opression is wrong.

I'm sure, given Lee's comparison of the books, that "The Book of Negros" would be an equally important book for teens to read, and I suppose it'll become one of my favorites, too. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

asthenight at gmail dot com

Madeleine said...

Please enter me, I am very interested.
Thank-you for the give away :)

Indigo said...

There is more strength in the power of words than most realize. Words form a story, a life that resounds through the history of a living,raw,emotional human being.How would I know? I've lived with adversity all my life as a Deaf Cherokee woman. My words are my voice within my silence. As my blog title is appropiately titled "Silent Screams" the roar that resounds from within me.

Through words I'm able to tell the story of Domestic Violence. The silence is broken and the world reads, absorbs the horror that can reside beneath humanity.

Yes, words have strength. Once the story is told you can no longer hide behind ignorance. That's the story that is being told here in "The Book of Negroes". I'm passionate about books having a voice (I'm sure by now you've gathered that bit of knowledge).

I would be honored to be entered in the drawing for this book. Thanks you for the opportunity! Indigo


JD said...

the cover drew me in,can't wait to get my hands on this

jdmimi at gmail dot com

John Mutford said...

I think the two issues brought up by the link aren't necessarily the same. Offensive and challenging aren't necessarily the same thing. Challenging can also mean difficult to grasp or understand and have nothing to do with confronting society's ills or the status quo. In any case, I've always felt that if The Handmaid's Tale is offensive it is necessarily so and falls into that confronting issues category. I think today more than ever teenagers should be able to handle the more squeamish parts of it. They're getting those parts elsewhere anyway, at least Atwood deals with it head on and talks about it all intelligently.

And yes, please enter my name in!
jmutfor [at] hotmail [dot[ com

Anonymous said...

I always motivated by you, your thoughts and attitude, again, thanks for this nice post.

- Thomas

Anonymous said...

last few days our group held a similar discussion on this subject and you point out something we have not covered yet, thanks.

- Kris

Anonymous said...

last week our class held a similar talk on this topic and you point out something we have not covered yet, thanks.

- Lora