The Book of Negroes took me about 3 weeks to read. This book is a fiction novel based on true events so while the main character herself was fictional, her experiences occurred during a very real time in history. It is a great piece of literature that really captures the strength and resilience of the human spirit. This is the second book I’ve recently read that highlights dark times of Canada’s history and its involvement in human torture. While I feel that the world has come far from the time period in which this book is set, reading this book during the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the blatant discrimination that still exists today and makes me question how far we’ve really come.
The Book of Negroes follows the life of Aminata Diallo, who at the tender age of 11 was abducted from her hometown in Bayo and eventually sold into slavery. Aminata possesses midwifery skills taught to her by her mother coupled with the ability to understand English along with a slew of tribal dialects. This skill set quickly sets her apart from other slaves and make her more valuable to the slaver traders that owned her. Her journey takes her from Bayo to South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia, Seirra Leone, and London.
At the time of her abduction she befriends a village boy, Chekura, and they were forced to part ways when they were sold to different slave-traders in South Carolina. With the help of the ‘Fishnet’ (a network used for slaves to trade information), Chekura finds out Aminata’s whereabouts and the two of them meet up and secretly get married. While they both belong to different slave-traders, they reunite frequently throughout the book and have two children together. Aminata’s journey to freedom has her crossing paths with many different characters who either try to break her spirit or give her the strength she needs to fulfill her dream of returning to Bayo.
Aminata’s character depicts the true meaning of resilience during a very ugly time in history. Lawrence Hill did a very good job at making the reader truly feel the emotions that Aminata was experiencing. From having her normal life snatched away from her to consistently needing to acclimatize to new surroundings, I felt that the level of detail really did have me a feeling like I was with Aminata throughout her journey. I was surprised that despite the level of torment she experienced being a slave, Aminata continued to display strength. I would go so far as to say that she was often the glue that bound the people she met through her journey with optimism and motivation to survive another day.
So what was the actual Book of Negroes? Aminata used her literacy skills to aide the British during the American Revolutionary War and was tasked to write down the names of each slave as they were being shipped from America to “freedom” in Canada. The Book of Negroes is an actual book where the names of freed slaves were being documented but through some research, I learned that there were actually two versions – one kept by the British and one by the Americans.
The book was very well written and although it was a thick read (over 700 pages!), there weren’t too many places where I felt the book was dragging. I know that there was a TV series based on this book which I am just in the middle of watching. I’m currently 3 episodes into the 6 episode series but can already say that the book provides much more detail and allows you to really embrace, and at many times embody, Aminata’s character. The development of each of the characters is much more all-rounded than the series (which I guess is expected). I do feel that if someone was interested in learning more about this historical time, then reading the book is really the way to go.
I’d recommend this book but probably not as a summer read. The contents are quite heavy and heartbreaking (especially knowing that the story is based on true events in history).