“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’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
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.
About The Panelist
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:
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
- An Introduction To Canada Reads 2009
- Spotlight on Fruit by Brian Francis (defended by Jen Sookfong Lee)
- Spotlight on Mercy Among The Children by David Adams Richards (defended by Sarah Slean)
© 2008-2010 Joanne Mosher of The Book Zombie. All rights reserved.