Monday, January 10, 2011

The Book of Negroes

In 1978, I was 12 years old and I borrowed a copy of Alex Haley's, Roots, from the public library. I had seen some episodes of the television mini-series on TV and had wanted to read the book to get the story from start to finish. Although there were many pages in that novel that were difficult to read, I couldn't put it down. Some of the events that unfolded between those pages have stuck fast with me throughout my lifetime and came rushing back when I read The Book of Negroes. It was probably one of my earliest forays into the genre of historical fiction. I was equal parts fascinated and horrified to discover that although the characters were fictionalized, the larger events themselves had occurred. The conditions on the ship during the voyage from Africa to America, and the slave auction were the two events that most affected me. They would come to haunt me again in The Book of Negroes.

Many years later, I heard that Haley was suspected of plagiarism for parts of Roots and had paid out a settlement in a lawsuit brought against him by another author. It appears that his genealogical research for the novel also fell under suspicion. Nevertheless, I was influenced and moved by this story. In a time period when elementary education (We didn't talk about these things in my 1978 grade 6 classroom. In fact, I seem to recall my teacher asking me if I had my parents permission just to read the book.) seemed to shun the discussion of social justice, it made me think about historical events and explore them from something other than the Wonder white bread euro centric point of view.

Well, I need to get where I'm going with this blog post and that's to discuss Lawrence Hill's, The Book of Negroes (Someone Knows My Name).
The second book that I have read in 2011 comes from a Canadian author and contains sections which occur in Nova Scotia over two hundred years ago. I had waited so long to read this novel that I feared that I would be underwhelmed by it once I finally read it. For those of you that follow this blog, you know my tendency to build up my anticipated reads into literary utopia's.

This novel does not disappoint. I was just as mesmerized by this story as I was over 30 years ago with a similar read and subject.

Hill had me by page 7.

"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. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied."

The Book of Negroes
tells the story of Aminata Diallo, an 11 year old African girl from the village of Bayo, who is captured and sold into slavery. Aminata's story extends from Africa, to South Carolina, to New York, to Nova Scotia, to Africa and finally to England. It is a story of losses and gains. Gains in the face of suffering and loss. Remembering who you are and where you come from. Aminata proves herself to be a brave and self reliant character. I think her ability to endure a lifetime of tragedy, and to persevere, is heavily influenced by her literacy skills. She is literate in a time when it is dangerous to be so, yet her ability to read and write secure her work and a means to provide for herself, and her books are her companions and salvation in the lonely years away from her family.

I don't want to say much more. Either you have read and enjoyed this novel already or you are hoping to read this and then I shouldn't say too much. The awards and accolades, buzz and hype are right on the money with this one.


Luxembourg said...

A friend loaned me this book to read...titled 'The Book of Negroes' that she received as a gift from a friend in Canada. I read it and enjoyed the story so much that I ordered it on the Nook; same book with a different title. I was so taken by the story that it was difficult to put it down. It was like discovering my own self and learning the history of black people and how they were stolen from their home in Africa and forced into slavery. It's the story of young girl Aminata Diallo and her abduction into slavery and her voyage home again and everything that happend to her inbetween, only to discover that the Africa she was forced to leave so many years ago was no longer the place she could call home again.

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