This review is influenced by two factors. One, I haven't been reading nearly as much as I usually do for the last few weeks, and it was such a relief to get into a book that flowed easily, engaged me fully, and which enticed me back every time.
Two, I come to this book knowing about the recent controversy about what book about racism kids in grade 10 read. The kerfluffle at the time was "parents want to ban To Kill A Mockingbird!!!," which, if you paid close attention, was not really what they were saying. They weren't saying, let's ignore that ugly racism stuff, they were saying, generally, while To Kill A Mockingbird is a great book, let's get a little more CanCon in there. To be precise, why don't we have our kids read this book instead of an American one.
So, now I've read The Book of Negroes. How do I feel about that debate? I'm still split. To Kill A Mockingbird is a great and powerful book. So is this one - and I think that in Canada too often we gloss over our own history of racism and yes, even slavery, in favour of looking down our noses at the U.S. This is a book that lets no one off the hook.
It takes place much earlier in history, so would that distance get in the way? I hope not. This is a powerful book, expertly written, and emotionally difficult. I would be more than happy to have any hypothetical children I might have encounter this book in school.
So, on to the book itself. This is the story of Aminata Diallo, a woman who is captured by slavers as a girl, survives the slave ship, works on an indigo plantation, is sold away from her husband and child to keep books for an inspector, and to ply her own trade as a midwife, who ends up in New York during the American Revolution, helps compile the real-life Book of Negroes, travels with the British to Nova Scotia, from there to Sierra Leone, and finally, to England, to participate in the abolitionist cause and tell her own story in her own words. She is literate, witty, warm, despairing and always, always vivid.
I've read the history book that Lawrence Hill says inspired him, and this book does a marvelous job of taking the bare bones of the histories of the Black Loyalists, and humanizing them, of creating a cast of characters who are each, entirely, wholly, themselves. The complexity he manages to convey looks effortless and yet is truly staggering.