Monday, 11 March 2013

The Book of Negroes

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle—a string of slaves— Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own.
Aminata’s eventual return to Sierra Leone—passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America—is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey. Lawrence Hill is a master at transforming the neglected corners of history into brilliant imaginings, as engaging and revealing as only the best historical fiction can be. A sweeping story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the teeming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London, The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, one who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.

The Original Book of Negroes
The Book of Negroes borrows its title from a 1783 British document. It listed the names of the blacks who were awarded passage out of New York after the American Revolutionary War. These individuals had to prove they had served the British army for at least a year and that they were free. Copies of the book are available at a handful of libraries, with the original held in London, England. It contains the names and descriptions of 3,000 black men women and children.

About the Author
 Lawrence Hill was born in Toronto in 1957 to an interracial American couple, the civil rights activists Daniel and Donna Hill. The pair came to Canada just after marrying, wishing to raise a family in a less racially hostile environment. Lawrence's background is black and white and Canadian and American, and this range of experiences and perspectives informs his writing.
He has written several books, including two previous novels: Some Great Thing (1992) and the immensely popular Any Known Blood (1997), a fictionalized account of his family history that crisscrosses the U.S./Canada border.
The Book of Negroes, a national bestseller, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for overall best book and has been widely acclaimed in Canada and internationally.
Lawrence's non-fiction works include a memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada and The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq , co-written with Joshua Key.
Lawrence has a B.A. in economics from Laval University and an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. He has worked as a reporter for the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press and has won numerous awards, including a National Magazine Award for an article that appeared in Walrus magazine: "Is Africa's Pain Black America's Burden?" and an American Wilbur Award for best television documentary for Seeking Salvation: A History of the Black Church in Canada .
Lawrence's father, the late Daniel Hill, Sr., was the director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and, later, Ombudsman of Ontario. His brother is the singer/songwriter Dan Hill.
Lawrence grew up in the suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, and currently lives in Burlington, Ontario, with his wife and their five children


The Guardian
The NY Times


  1. Some Fireside Readers Book Club members liked this book for the following reasons:
    It is a page- turner story that needs to be told about what happened to slaves who were captured in Africa to work on American plantations, and who then “escaped” to Canada. Readers witnessed the inhumanity of people in general, but, slavers to other Africans, and whites to blacks, were communicated particularly effectively. Also, the reality of the black experience in Canada was an eye opener, unlike our traditional thinking about the Underground Railroad.
    Meena is a well-developed character adored for her strength, determination and resilience. She is easy to root for and we are glad she survived. Although unlike Fanta who rebelled at everything, Meena tried to become invisible to her captors, she eventually became a leader in her community. Meena also took advantage of any opportunity to learn new skills although it would have been much easier to hide. The idea that because she was so young when captured, she was more adaptable, was also a strong theme in the book.
    These Readers also found much to praise in Lawrence Hill’s writing. The settings are all very vivid and readers felt seasick on the boat and sweated in the heat vicariously. There are also lots of great metaphors like: “Man stands short and fierce like exclamation mark.” …more in next comment…

  2. They loved all the research into historical events and everyday details like the antelope sandals of the slavers, the names of the African languages unknown previously to reader and of course The Book of Negroes. Chapter titles were also inspired.
    Author did a good job of writing from a female perspective and delivering the message that her only safety was in the memory of her parents.

    Others had problems with The Book of Negroes because:
    The storyline was just one disaster after another which left readers feeling dissatisfied because there was too much suffering. Treating poor people badly was the norm then. Irish potato farmers were forced off their land because the owners wanted to raise sheep for the textile trade. They were also loaded on disease ridden ships and sent to the new world with poor food and water. However, it was pointed out they weren’t in shackles and weren’t used as slaves on plantations.
    This was not a literary book – only a page turner. It is a very long character study of only one woman with no plot. It started out strong but after she arrived in America the story was too implausible because she never should have survived the ocean voyage. Also, trying to get back to her village in Africa was too unrealistic.
    Because Meena has the same name and starting age as author’s daughter, he couldn’t let anything too bad happen to her.
    The title comes from too small a part of the book.
    The book is too long. It would have been better to stop after the Nova Scotia segment and then write another book for the next events including the establishment of another generation in England.