Monday, February 1, 2010

The Book of Negroes

One of my oldest and closest friends, Kira, left to go travel New Zealand and Australia for five months in December, and before she left we deiced to pick five books to read together while she was away. Ever since we were young girls we have always shared the love of reading. We were always passing books between us, sharing our thoughts and excitements about the rise and fall of our favorite hero's and villains, and always anticipating the next story we would be able to share together. Reading the same books while we are separated by land and ocean is a way for us to stay connected through the lives of characters, and the turning of each crisp new page.

The first book we decided to read is The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. This book has been getting noticed by many book clubs, talk shows, and people within my circle of friends and family, so I figured it was worth a read. Going into this book I didn't know exactly what to expect. I knew that all the events and many characters were based on things that actually happened, but like most, I am ignorant to the true history of the African slave trade.

This book is inspired by a fascinating but little know historical document called the Book of Negroes. This book provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the United States for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own

Captured at the tender age of 11 from her village in West Africa, and forced to walk for months to the sea in a slave coffle, Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. Unlike many of the slaves that were seized, she does not give up and let her mind go. Instead she soaks in all the information she can. She learns several new languages, learns to read and write, learns about medicine, and even about numbers, money and book keeping. She is convinced that one day she will return to freedom. Everything that Aminata does over the course of her life as a slave in North America, is bringing her one step closer to freedom, and to returning to her beloved homeland. Finally after serving for the British in the Revolutionary War, she registers her name in the historic Book of Negroes, and embarks on a journey back to Africa. This part of the story is a compelling account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.

I found Lawrence Hill to be an expert at transforming the neglected corners of history into intense imaginings. Unlike the history books we are forced to read throughout our adolescent education, the Book of Negroes held me captive from page to page. It was a broad story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the swarming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London. I think Aminata is one of the strongest female characters in recent fiction, for she survived a world hostile to her color and her sex.

This is an exert from the beginning of the book. From this paragraph on I knew I would be touched not only by the story of Aminata, but the stories of all the people who were taken from their homes to live as slaves in a world completely unknown to them.

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. Crossing water never improved my life, always worsened it. If you, Dear Reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water, seize your freedom by any means necessary . . . and cultivate distrust of the color pink. Especially if it’s from the light of the dying sun. Pink is taken as the color of innocence, the color of childhood, but the way that it spills across the water in the late afternoon constitutes nothing short of sleight of hand. . . . What benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?

Every book has a different personality, and I find that I am drawn to a certain reading place, position, and even drink while I am reading a certain book. During my time reading The Book of Negroes, I most often found myself with a cup of hot tea, curled up on my inviting couch, and kept warm beneath a thick blanket. I was able to become totally and completely absorbed in the story of Aminata, and let myself get lost in her world without my own distractions. I love that I can be in sweat pants with no makeup on, yet still be involved in a different world. When I go out to a movie, you would be hard pressed to find me in my pajamas... and that is one of the many glories of reading.

Just a little tip, there is also an illustrated version of this book. It has small diagrams, drawing, pictures and letters. It's really interesting to be able to see what Hill is describing, such as guineas or the head wraps the women wore. In fiction book I love making up my own images of the the characters faces, habits and mannerisms, as well as the scenery, but because this is an historical fiction book, it's great to see the real thing. 

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