Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Goodreads Description: Based on a true story, "The Book of Negroes" tells the story of Aminata, a young girl abducted from her village in Mali aged 11 in 1755, and who, after a deathly journey on a slave ship where she witnesses the brutal repression of a slave revolt, is sold to a plantation owner in South Carolina, who rapes her. She is brought to New York, where she escapes her owner, and finds herself helping the British by recording all the freed slaves on the British side in the Revolutionary War in The Book of Negroes (a real historical document that can be found today at the National Archives at Kew). Aminata is sent to Nova Scotia to start a new life, but finds more hostility, oppression and tragedy. Separated from her one true love, and suffering the unimaginable loss of both her children who are taken away from her, she eventually joins a group of freed slaves on a harrowing odyssey back to Africa, and ends up in London as a living icon for Wilberforce and the other Abolitionists. "The Book of Negroes" is a page-turning narrative that manages to use Aminata's heart-rending personal story to bring to life a harrowing chapter in our history.
My Review: The Book of Negroes is an incredibly odyssey story featuring Aminata Diallo, who at 11-years-old is abducted from her village and trafficked into slavery. She is taken onto a slave ship that heads out to South Carolina where Aminata is sold into slavery to an indigo plantation owner. The novel follows Aminata's life as she gains more and more freedoms and eventually makes her way back to Africa. The book tackles ideas of colonialism, imperialism, assimilation, racism, (of course) slavery, all the little shades of grey that fall between those concepts, and most importantly, how real people tried to live their lives within the framework of systematic oppression.
Something many writers might pick up on while reading this book was how the author utilized the concept of 'show don't tell.' The narrator, Aminata, tells us a lot about the story and characters point blank, and though at first glance it would seem like Hill is breaking a pretty big writing rule, it's a necessary evil. The Book of Negroes is incredibly long and detailed, and in order to get the story out, some parts are simply told to us without any attempt to show we might "see" it play out. We can see this a lot in dialogue scenes where the writing would go from using dialogue and tags to just telling the reader what was said. Alternatively, there is a lot that is shown to us, usually the things related to the bigger themes rather than the plot. Hill shows us how white people sometimes rationalize racist behaviour through characters like Soloman Lindo, who asserts that he's different from slave owners, and calls Aminata his servant instead of slave, yet still participates in the systems of oppression and has no problem using them to his benefit. Hill shows us the realities of racism by showing why other slaves refused to run away for their own safety, and how those that did often didn't find a good life. He shows us arguments against abolishment by using what the audience would consider "good" characters to express the anti-abolishment concerns, and shows us how slavers at the time hid the truth of the inhumane conditions in order to keep the trade alive. All of this adds up to a pretty balanced use of both "show" and "tell," and the book is a great example for when to use each angle. On a personal level, I found the way Hill used his "telling" to be a little intrusive at times and took me out of the story, but I recognize it as a necessary evil to tell such a long story.
The novel tackles some very difficult ideas and subjects, and does it with an incredible amount of tact and fairness that makes the book feel very authentic. The book is obviously anti-slavery and anti-racism, but Hill approached these subjects with a very balanced portrayal. Instead of pushing any sort of agenda, the book presented the history as thoroughly as possible and let the truth speak for itself. As well, the horror was nicely balanced so the book was not unbearable to read. Hill addressed the violence and horror appropriately and did not shy away from the awful truths, but also didn't linger over them or fetishize the violence. The book gets progressively easier to read content-wise the more freedom that Aminata gains.
As for the characters, they were all incredible. Aminata is truly a courageous and resilient main character. Chekura really stole my heart; at the beginning I was rolling my eyes at the idea of him and Aminata getting together, but a few hundred pages later and I couldn't imagine them without each other. Even all the other characters that came in and out of the story were very consistent and had very clear personalities and motivations.
Overall, the book was an incredible piece of historical fiction. I can't say I was completely blown away by the characters or plot, and if not for my college class I don't think I ever would have picked it up (mostly due to the violence), but I really valued it for the accurate and detailed portrayal of life for slaves and free blacks. I really appreciate that it took the time to look at slavery from every angle and even actively dispute common racist myths. The Book of Negroes is an important read for people hoping to learn more about the history of slavery in North America and understand how the framework of that systematic oppression still exists in our society today.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. The Book of Negroes is an important piece of historical fiction that paints a thorough picture of life for people of colour trapped in the slave trade.