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January 21, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

It was monumental to finish reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes on the same day the United States’ received its 44th President. Though I understand how President Obama’s own ancestral history varies greatly from Aminata Diallo’s, to have read this book is to understand the significance of what he represents. To trace the path of Aminata’s life is to understand the early history of blacks in America– how this history is fraught with complexity, its terrible legacies, how this history refuses to sit down in the history books where it belongs, and all the reasons why it never should.

Lawrence Hill has created a story in the “sweeping epic” genre, crossing over years, languages, continents, and oceans. The story of Aminata Diallo, who is telling this story herself close to the end of her life, in England where she is campaigning for the abolishment of the slave trade. She begins at the beginning, her childhood spent in the village of Bayo with the security of two loving parents. Their family life is idyllic, but danger lurks beyond its bounds. One day whilst out assisting her midwife mother, twelve year-old Aminata is kidnapped, her village is burned, her parents are killed. She spends the next three months walking with other prisoners towards the Atlantic Ocean, deprived of food and comfort. Her precocious nature, however, in addition to the midwifery skills she has garnered from her mother, serve to make her useful to her captors. This becomes even more pronounced on the journey she takes from Africa to America by slave ship, where she survives by her formidable wits.

Aminata continues to distinguish herself as a slave on an indigo plantation, then as a “servant” in Charleston (where she is taught to read and write). She escapes from her owner on a trip to New York City, realizing the freedom she’d never stopped yearning for. Her reputation grows, and she is asked to help the British compile The Book of Negroes— a record of Black British loyalists promised freedom and passage to British North America. The reality of life in Nova Scotia once she arrives, however, proves much different than the promise, and soon Aminata has nothing to lose by an arduous voyage back to Africa as part of a Black settlement in Sierra Lione.

“Honey,” says Aminata Dialla, “my life is a ghost story.” A ghost story she prefaces with the following “caveat”: “Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led towards water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary.”

The scope of this novel is stunning, its details so pointed and perfect that readers will have trouble distinguishing from non-fiction, which is the impact Hill is trying to achieve. To re-imagine what really happened, to let Aminata’s life stand for the experience stand for the experience of all of those who had no such voice. To fill in gaps in our own sense of history– on the (brutal) details of the slave trade, the (brutal) history of Blacks in Canada, all of which is widely known in a vague context, but without specificity and almost taken for granted. Slavery evokes countless symbols and ideas, but the humanity gets lost, and the concrete fact of it forgotten. There is so much learning to be had within these pages, and a fascinating life story that moves with a furious momentum.

The story is the point of this book, its facts and details, and realities. What gets lost, however, is the life itself. Though secondary characters are drawn with some complexity, they never entirely function as real people. And this is particularly the case with Aminata herself, though I know many would disagree with me. But to me, she read as a vehicle for the story she had to tell, rather than an actualized character. That she never changes through the years demonstrated that for me– she makes references to aging, to her looks changing, but her behaviour and convictions never seem to alter over sixty years. Though of course we’re hearing the story through the prism of her own perspective, but it was telling to me that I never got a sense of what she looked like (though we’re told many times details of her appearance).

The story is the point of this book, told in Aminata’s steady voice, but such steadiness comes at the expense of exquisite prose. There are moments, of course– the chapter titles highlight these– but in general, the prose was quite unremarkable. The story was riveting, but as a novel, the book failed to take flight. Scope is part of the problem, when years pass in the space between paragraphs. There is nothing artful about a line beginning with, “The days came and went…”, for example.

The Book of Negroes is an important book, an essential book even, but not wholly satisfactory as a novel. Still, it is a triumph in all number of ways, as I hope I’ve illustrated, and I am glad that I finally read it.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

One thought on “Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill”

  1. Rona Maynard says:

    I first read your review while enthralled and enraged by Aminata's struggles in slavery. I thought you were too tough on the book, which at that stage was in no way overwhelmed by other novels I've read on this theme. But as I near the end, I find myself running out of interest–perhaps because the author is, too. The storytelling becomes pedestrian, a dogged compilation of historical detail about the little known black colony in Sierra Leone. Aminata's character flattens out. For a novel of slavery that's transcendent and morally complex from start to finish, I recommend The Known World by Edward P. Jones, one of the finest novels I've read in years.

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