Over the Christmas holidays, the Vancouver Sun held a promotion that they called the 12 Days of Christmas. Each day, they would provide free stuff for readers with an iTunes account. Now most of the stuff was pretty disposable, but one of the giveaways was an iBooks version of the Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. At the time, I didn’t really think too much about it. I put aside and went about my life. About a month ago, I finally found the time to read it.
And I couldn’t put it down. Lawrence Hill has crafted an excellent story that pulls the reader forward from beginning to end. From an idealic childhood in Bayo to the cruelty of the American South to the betrayal of the British in Nova Scotia, Aminata is pulled through a nightmarish life full of pain, loss, and suffering but also love and hope that gives the reader a far better understanding of the true horror of the slave trade.
The real strength of Hill’s novel is the unforgettable imagery that transports the reader into the time period. When Aminata is transported from Africa to the American South by ship, you can almost smell the disgusting conditions through Hill’s obscene yet descriptive prose. It was simply unforgettable and gave me an understanding of the horror that Africans, kidnapped from their homes, separated from their families, and robbed of their freedom, had to endure. Hill’s background in history tracking the Black Canadians of Nova Scotia strengthens the tale by giving the tale historical authenticity. You don’t feel that you’re reading a work of fiction but instead are staring into the life of a real person.
There are some weaknesses though. While Aminata is an excellent lead, she isn’t the most original of characters. The intelligent, rebellious female hero who beats the odds is a fairly trope character. While Hill uses her well, it was a missed opportunity for a more complicated and thus interesting character, especially when dealing with the omnipresent influence of slavery on everyone’s lives. Throughout the story, she maintains her trust in others, despite the number of times that she has been betrayed. I would have liked to see her wrestle more with issues of trust and cynicism towards humanity as this would have given her something internally to struggle against and eventually overcome. Instead, her conflict is external, focused on the scourge of slavery and the way it destroys so many innocent lives.
However, this choice may be more appropriate as it allows Aminata’s moral certainty and inner strength to contrast with the poisoned compromises that result from an economic system based on slavery. For example, see Solomon Lindo, a jewish duty inspector who believes himself to be compassionate and understanding to Aminata yet can not see that by “owning” her, he is still harming her, robbing her of her god-given right to freedom. Despite his redemptive actions later on, I can understand why Mr. Hill does not give Solomon the absolution he craves. By participating in the slave system as an owner, Mr. Lindo has given it personal credibility. The lives that are lost cannot be returned, the atrocities cannot be undone. Redemption and absolution are beyond reach for Mr. Lindo and that is what makes him a somewhat tragic figure. His only hope lies in Aminata’s forgiveness and she understandably, is not in a forgiving mode.
A second weakness in the book is the ending. I felt that it strained the novel’s credibility to deliver a happy ending that didn’t really fit with the rest of the story. Over her entire life, slavery had robbed Aminata of her freedom, her family, her lover, and finally her children. For everything to work out at the end, while emotionally satisfying for the lead character, seems to undermine the tragedy of slavery and its destructive impact on so many lives. Perhaps Mr. Hill is like us. Having watched Aminata overcome so much hardship during her life, we cannot help to cheer when she receives a little piece of happiness. We are only human.
However, these weaknesses should not distract from the fact that the Book of Negroes is an outstanding accomplishment. Lawrence Hill should be proud of his work. He has crafted a story that should not be missed.