Unrolling a map of the world, Aminata Diallo puts one finger on the coast of West Africa and another on London. The first is where she was born in 1745, the second is her location six decades later. Her story is what happened in between, and her remarkable voice is the heart and soul of Hill’s magnificent novel.
Brought before the British public by the abolitionists to reveal the realities of slavery, she has come, old and weary, to change the tide of history and bear witness to some of the world’s most grievous wrongs.
Kidnapped and taken from her family as a child, Diallo is forced aboard a ship bound for South Carolina, where she arrives at age 12, weak and ill, the other slaves her only family. But soon she is sold again and begins an exodus that will lead to Canada, where she discovers the same relentless hardship and stinging prejudice.
Her hunger for freedom drives her back across the Atlantic to England, and in 1792, Aminata undertakes yet another ocean crossing, bound for the place of her birth.
My Thoughts (May Contain Spoilers)
While I had recently picked up Lawrence Hill’s novel, One Great Thing (which is currently sitting on my shelf un-read), after seeing it on the shelf at a grocery store, I was forced to purchase The Book of Negroes (a.k.a. Someone Knows My Name) for a book club. I don’t know why I didn’t think to buy TBON in the first place because now that I have finished it, it was an extraordinary book. I really underestimated the weight of the book when I started reading it for my club – close to 500 pages and very moving material.
The story follows young Aminata Dialli as she is captured and thrown into slavery at the young age of 12. From there, the reader follows Aminata as she learns about life and love and the evils of man, while traveling across the ocean to North America. It is a bold story, and even though Hill is sure to write that it is a work of fiction, it’s hard to believe that certain people have actually had to live this life in the past.
The most beautiful thing about this book is that, although Aminata (Meena Dee, as people start calling her) is exposed to so much hatred and sorrow, she doesn’t let it bring her too far down. Her main concern is how she will eventually make it back to her home in Africa as a free woman and how she can ultimately reunite with her husband and children. The beauty of this novel, though, is that no matter what your colour, race, or gender, Hill makes certain the reader knows that cruelty is everywhere – not just with the white man, but with the Africans, the French, the British, and all over the world.
I can’t even imagine what the days were like back when this story would have taken place – the cruelty that people had in their hearts was unfathomable. It was so nice to see that Aminata persevered, but to read about how her own people lost their minds on the trip to North America, or to read about what ultimately happens to Aminata’s daughter, May, it was too much. I found myself wondering (much as I did when I read Precious), how much can actually happen to one person – how can one person’s heart be ripped out so many times, and yet this person still can see the beauty of the human soul?
I had my hesitations to start reading this book (even if it was for a book club) – for some reason I thought it would be hard to get into, be too descriptive and boring, but from the second I started reading it, I was swept up in Hill’s beautiful writing and found myself wanting more. I found my eyes glazing over somewhat when the talk turned political, but it always turned back to Aminata and the strength and courage she had. She was a true fighter. She touched so many hearts and it was amazing to see how one woman could do so much in such a terrible life – even if this is a fictional story.
In that same sense, it was easy to read at the end that the book is a work of fiction, but then the reader has to realize that The Book of Negroes actually exists. Slavery existed and is still carried out in certain parts of the world. Some people still aren’t free. If people like John and Thomas Clarkson exist in this world, I would hope that they are still fighting the good fight to make sure everyone is free one day.
My only qualms with this novel was that it seemed like although a lot happened to Aminata, nothing physically hard ever did. She never really succumbed to any sickness – that is, any sickness of any severity. In her whole life, she never really hurt herself in any travels. She seemed to be too lucky towards the end of the novel when she escapes the clutches of the evil trader who was going to sell her instead of lead her to her home. I’m sure that her literacy and the advancement she showed from the teachings the various people she met along the way of her journey helped, but it all just seemed to good to be true, in a sense.