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Bookends: An Award Winning Tale of Dogged Determination August 2, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: An Award Winning Tale of Dogged Determination
By Dan Davidson
April 17, 2012
– 828 words –

The Book of Negroes
Illustrated Edition
By Lawrence Hill
Harper Collins
510 pages
$34.99

When Lawrence Hill decided to call this novel The Book of Negroes he had no idea what controversy would follow it around. In Canada “negroes” is a dated way to refer to black or African-Canadians. In the United States, however, the word is loaded with negative baggage nearly the equal of that other “n” word. It was originally advertised there under this title, but the backlash from bookstores caused the publisher to re-title it Someone Knows My Name.
The French translation is called Aminata, which is the name of the narrator. In Holland, however, the title was translated directly from the original and sparked charges of racism and a book burning led by a Surinam-born citizen of that country.
Never mind that. The book won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Overall Book in 2007, the Roger’s Trust Fiction Prize, the 2008 Evergreen Award from the Ontario Library Association and the CBC Canada Reads Prize for 2009, as well as making the shortlist for the Giller Prize.
The novel takes its title from an actual historical document, the list of names that was used to decide which freed Loyalist former slaves should be evacuated from New York and taken to Nova Scotia after the British lost the American Civil War. In the novel, Aminata Diallo is one of the people who compiles this book for the British, being one of the few of her race who can read and write Standard English.
Aminata was born in Bayo, West Africa, and taken as a slave when she was but 11 years old, on the same day her mother and father were butchered by the slave taking Africans who were trading with the English on the coast. Aminata had a lucky start in life in that her father, who was a Muslim, taught her a bit about reading and writing and sparked an early interest in learning. To this her mother, who was a midwife, added the skill of catching babies, as it was known. Between the two of them she also acquired a facility with languages, a vital aptitude. So she was seeded with the potential to become a combination of healer, translator, and scribe.
Had she not been purchased from her original indigo plantation owner by a somewhat more liberal Jewish duty inspector, these advantages might not have secured her advancement. Plantation life was a grind, but she learned English there (and had to hide it) and was reunited with the love of her life there. She and Chekura, a boy from a village near hers, have a very fractured relationship, kept apart by the fact that they have different owners and that liaisons between the sexes are strictly controlled.
She and her second owner end up in New York during the Revolution and it is here that she makes a break for freedom, living in the slave shantytown and eventually performing the clerical services fro the British that enable both her and her husband to qualify for transport to Nova Scotia.
The colony near Shelburne does not go well. The former slaves may be free in law, but they are trapped by the racism and rules of the majority white populace and their village is ravaged on a number of occasions. She eventually learns that Chekura’s boat did not survive the journey and, during one period of racial troubles, she loses her daughter to a white couple who have fled the area for England.
Aminata joins a group who are determined to return to Africa and, funded by an English anti-slavery group, they establish Freetown in Sierra Leone. Ironically the colony is practically next door to the fort from which she was dispatched to America after her original kidnapping.
She has always had an urge to return to her village, to be able to place where it is in the world compared to where she has been taken. She manages to partially fulfill this ambition, but not without some cost to her health.
The book ends where it began, in London, where Aminata has become the front person, the showcase witness, before a parliamentary committee debating the abolition of the slave trade – though not yet the abolition of slavery. These sequences in the book take place in the year 1802, when Aminata is an old woman and worn down by a life of hardship.
Hill’s book is available in many editions: hard cover, different sized paperbacks and digital. The version I’ve listed here is the illustrated edition, an oversized version filled with appropriate period pictures and several additional text pieces by the author.  It’s kind of an awkward size to read, but it demonstrates the importance the publisher felt the book deserved.
Lawrence Hill spent the month of March at Berton House in Dawson City.

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