The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill

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 Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008 

Note: This book is called Someone Knows My Name in the US 

The Book is Negroes is an epic story following the life of one woman, Aminata Diallo, as she is captured from her West African village and sold as a child slave. We see her grow into a strong woman who battles against adversity, ending up in London amongst key figures in the abolition of the slave trade. 

On that slave vessel, I saw things that the people of London would never believe. But I think of the people who crossed the sea with me. The ones who survived. We saw the same things. Some of us still scream out in the middle of the night. But there are men, women and children walking about the streets without the faintest idea of our nightmares. They cannot know what we endured if we never find anyone to listen.

The book gripped me throughout. I immediately connected with Aminata and loved seeing her develop from a frightened child into a brave woman. The fact that the whole story was seen through her eyes meant that by the end of the book I knew everything about her. I felt as though I was part of the story, rather than a distant observer.

I thought I knew a lot about the slave trade, but I was completely unaware of some elements of this book. I has no idea that slaves helped the British fight the Revolutionary War in Manhattan, or that some of those who did were shipped to Nova Scotia; so this book educated as well as entertained me. 

There were points when I felt that the plot was a bit too convenient – Aminita seemed to end up in all the right places, just as critical moments of history took place. In the end I can’t complain too much – the story was fantastic and the notes at the end explained a little bit about the history, making me realise that it could almost have happened. 

This book is easy to read – I’d describe it as quality fiction, rather than literary fiction. It is the type of book that has broad appeal and so I’m surprised it hasn’t had more coverage in the blogging world. I’d compare it to The Help or A Thousand Splendid Suns – the type of book selected by Richard and Judy or The TV Book Club, enjoyed and discussed by book clubs everywhere.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, if only so you are aware of the numerous ways in which slaves suffered.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…while the themes are definitely heavy, it doesn’t feel like a burden, even with almost 500 pages to it. Kiss a  Cloud

In focusing in on one main character, Hill has personalized history that makes us uncomfortable…   BookNAround

Books like this are so important to us and to future generations, lest we should forget. The Book Whisperer

The Book of Negroes is a masterpiece of historical literature, capturing the contradictions of the human condition in graceful, honest prose… Giraffe Days

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  1. JoAnn says:

    This sounds great! With your comparisons to The Help and A Thousand Splendid Sons, I’m thinking my book club would really go for it, too. On to the list it goes… thanks, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, Great news :-) I hope that you enjoy it!

  2. Too late… this one is already on my virtual TBR! :-)

    No, seriously, it’s good to read another positive review of this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I hope that you get round to reading it soon :-)

  3. Jessica says:

    This is on my TBR list and has been for a while. Im reading Beloved at the moment which has sparked my interest in the subject of which I think I am largly ignorant of.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, Beloved is a wonderful book that I didn’t really appreciate when I first read it. I highly recommend getting a study guide to understand the depth of Morrison’s work.

      The Book of Negroes is very different – it is much easier to read/understand, but I think they both give the same message: slavery is terrible. If you have an interest in slavery then The Book of Negores is a must read.

  4. Shannon says:

    So glad you enjoyed it too!

    I studied history at uni, it was all European (because that’s all that was offered, really), and so it only touched upon Africa and the Americas when dealing with colonialism, but I did learn about the black slaves who were freed in exchange for fighting for the British – it has an Australian connection, because many of those ex-slaves ended up in England and, being still the object of persecution, a few ended up on boats bound for Australia.

    In fact, the very first Australian bush ranger was an escaped black convict called Black Caesar! We never think of there being black people amongst the settlers or convicts in our early history, but they were there, just overlooked for a long time.

    I love the path through history people leave behind, which also appealed to me with Aminata.

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, I have read a few books that mention slaves arriving in Australia – I’m not sure if that is coincidence or it is more widely known, but I hadn’t heard of slaves in Canada before. I love the way books like this teach us history :-)

      1. Shannon says:

        I knew that but not in any detail. Not many people realise that the English also had penal colonies in Canada and the US until the Revolution, which was why they needed somewhere new (enter Australia!) So we weren’t the only country of thieves!!(remember The Princess Bride?) ;)

        Don’t you love history? :D

  5. raidergirl3 says:

    I’m one of the few people who didn’t love it. I just found the violence and horrible treatment of the slaves to be too much and I almost stopped at page 80. The history lesson was good though.

    However, most people love it – it won Canada Reads last year, and was a Commonwealth Prize winner as well.

    1. Jackie says:

      raidergirl3, The violence was shocking, but the sad fact is that I have read much worse recently and so am more used to it. I thought the violence in The Book of Negroes was well written. It never glorified it, just explained what happended in simple terms. Books like Beloved were much harder for me to read. Sorry to hear that you couldn’t stomach the violence – it is shocking what we humans do sometimes.

  6. Jeane says:

    I’ve got this book on my shelf and been meaning to read it soon. It sounds very powerful. Every time I read a review of it I’m reminded of Roots (one of my very favorite books), is it anything like that?

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, I’m afraid that I haven’t read Roots so can’t compare the two. Roots has been on my wishlist for a while, but I haven’t found a copy yet. I’m sure I’ll love it, so I hope to get a copy soon.

      The Book of Negroes is a powerful book – enjoy :-)

  7. Shannon says:

    I loved this book. Lawrence Hill is an incredible writer. I hadn’t actually heard much about the book when I first read it, I picked it up because he grew up in the area of Toronto I currently live in. I’m so glad I picked it up.

    It was nice to finally read a book about this topic that includes the Canadian aspect of it. A lot of people think that we didn’t have slavery here, or that we were just the end of the Underground Railroad, but people don’t realize (even here) that we have much deeper Black history in Canada.

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, It is quite reassuring to know that even people in Canada are unaware of the slavery there – I thought I was alone in my lack of knowledge.

      I hope to read more books written by Lawrence Hill in the future – he is a talented author.

      1. Shannon says:

        During this time we weren’t Canada, we were still French and British colonies. So the French and British brought slaves with them, as did the American loyalists. We never had a slave society the way the US did and I think that is why people don’t think of Canada as having slavery. We didn’t have the large scale plantation slavery here, it was more domestic servants. I read once that there were probably less than 5000 slaves here, about 2000 black slaves. I guess the slavery in Canada has been overshadowed by that in the US and Caribbean, but it did still exist. I imagine though that most Canadians would like to think that we were above it and that is why we play up our involvement in the Underground Railroad more ;) (Or the fact that we weren’t technically Canada then.)

        1. Jackie says:

          Shannon, Thanks for all the extra details and yes – I do love history :-)

  8. Alyce says:

    I’ve got this on my shelf. It’s nice to know that it isn’t literary fiction. It’s such a large book that I wasn’t sure when I wanted to devote the time to it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, It is quite long, but it never dragged and I finished it quite quickly considering its size (about 4 or 5 days) I hope you are able to fit it in soon.

  9. Amy says:

    I’m glad to see you enjoyed this book, it has garnered a lot of attention and praise. I have it on my shelf to read but for some reason just haven’t gotten to it yet! I must pick it up soon.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, All the reviews I saw while searching yesterday were very positive. Apart from radiergirl3 (comment above) I haven’t seen any negative comments about this book. I hope that you decide to read it soon.

  10. Jenners says:

    Maybe you’ll get the ball rolling on getting this book more attention and coverage.

    1. Jackie says:

      Fingers crossed!

  11. Jenny says:

    I read a young adult book a while back (Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains) about an American slave girl at the time of the American Revolution, and I thought that aspect of the history was really, really interesting. Like you, I hadn’t thought much about it before. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for this one, although the violence may end up being too much for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I have heard about Chains, but never considered reading it before. I’ll keep an eye out for a copy as I am very intrested in this period of history at the moment.

  12. This was heartrending, especially the parts on the ship when they were sailing from Africa. But it was never bleak. The pacing and the plot were lively. I learned a lot from it..

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It looks as though we felt exactly the same way about this book :-)

  13. Carina says:

    I absolutely adored this book when I read it back in January! I also listened to it as an audiobook (through the Between the Covers podcast from CBC Radio), and it was fabulous getting to hear it that way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carina, I can see why this book would be great to listen to. If they managed to get the dialects right then the atmosphere would have been wonderful. It is great to hear that you loved it too :-)

  14. Wendy says:

    I also loved this book, Jackie…and I agree – it is not literary fiction (I would classify it as historical fiction). Despite its chunkiness, it is also a relatively quick read :)


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