Tuesday, August 30, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 4th Review - The Book of Negroes

I wasn't sure I would actually get to Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes during the challenge this year, but I brought it on the trip to New York and Chicago, and I managed to read it in 3 or so days (aided by layovers in airports and so forth).  It is well-written and the plot moves along at a rapid pace.  I don't know if it was a mistake or not to start with the narrator, Aminata (or Meena as she is generally called), appearing before Parliament as an old woman, testifying against the slave trade.  It is somewhat difficult to remain in a state of suspense throughout the whole novel, when you know the main character survives all kinds of suffering.  I think that might have been a mistake, but that was the way Hill wanted it.

To cut to the chase, I thought this was an entertaining and solid book.  I don't think it is a great book for a variety of reasons.  Most fundamentally, while Aminata was somebody that you would root for throughout, she felt a lot to me like a person from our era thrown into the late eighteenth century.  She had a sense of her own worth and willingness to fight for her rights that frankly seemed very out of place for that time and era.  Interestingly, Hill sort of hints that she would have ultimately been very out of kilter in her village where societal pressures would have been unrelenting for her to conform and marry the local chief as his second or third wife.  While she is somewhat tempered in her thinking by the end of the book, she expects far too much out of people, particularly Lindo Abraham, and she generally refuses to accept compromises.  (It must be nice to live a life where one does not make compromises.  Perhaps ironically, the last time she spurns a chance to hash things out with Lindo* and perhaps see things from his perspective, she has been working for several months with the British, writing down the names of the free Blacks in the Book of Negroes, along with slaves and indentured servants that were going to Canada along with their British masters.  If she was going to be so self-righteous with Lindo, she should have looked in the mirror right about then, since she was just as much an enabler of the slave trade at that particular moment.  She does gain a bit more perspective after her return to Africa.)

More than anything, Aminata is basically a Mary Jane, that is a character that is so astoundingly perfect and exceptional in every way that it gradually gets a bit boring.  She can pick up languages amazingly quickly, by the age of 10 or so, she is an experienced midwife, she learns herbal medicine on a plantation in South Carolina (where she is also taught to read English -- she already knew a bit about reading the Qur'an, possibly in the original Arabic), and after she is sold to Lindo Abraham, he teaches her bookkeeping.  There is almost nothing she can't do, although as I already said she basically does not accept the complicity of average Southerners in the slave trade.  I'm not entirely sure what point Hill is trying to make when he focuses several times on the fact that slavery existed in Aminata's home village (and the chieftain's wife is actually most horrified that they are enslaving proper Muslims rather than that slavery exists at all).  This is actually a fairly daring subplot, as well as spending quite a bit of time late in the novel examining the actions of Africans who sold other Africans into slavery.  But it does make me question why Aminate is so particularly unforgiving towards Lindo when she was exposed to many of her kinsmen who engaged in slavery of one sort or another and that she herself facilitated the British bringing slaves to Canada.  The single weakness or flaw in her character comes when, despite having been warned several times, works out a deal to go with African slave traders in search of her home village (which she had even been told had been completely wiped off the map!).  Not too surprisingly, they eventually plan to sell her off as a slave yet again (quelle ironie!), but she figures out their plot (due to knowing yet another African language) and she miraculously escapes.  On the one hand, Hill may be trying to humanize her a bit and give her a flaw, but it just seemed a bit too unlikely that she would ever have trusted the slavers in the first place.  Of course, had I been in her place, I would never have thought it worth going back to Africa at all.

What I particularly liked about the novel was that it exposed me to a very under-reported aspect of history, namely that there was a small colony of free Blacks in Nova Scotia that was established in the aftermath of the American Revolution.  The Book of Negroes is an actual historical document, which kind of blew my mind.  (And there was a back to Africa movement many decades before Marcus Garvey.)  I also thought it was interesting how the British tried to stir up trouble by basically promising American slaves their freedom if they served on the British side.  (I wonder if Abe Lincoln knew about this aspect of history when he read out the Emancipation Proclamation, about which I will write more in my review of Father Comes Home from the Wars.  Abe was slightly better on the follow-through than the British, though at least some slaves got their freedom that way during the American Revolution.)  There were some very interesting debates in the novel about what it meant to stick up for the Americans and their "freedom," when it very quickly became obvious that this didn't apply to slaves.

There were quite a few characters that I relished reading about, whereas I was just sort of meant to admire Aminata on a pedestal as it were.  While Rosa Lindo is almost too good to be true herself, I still enjoyed the passages where she introduced Aminata to their home and far more genteel way of life.  If I recall, she actually had a bit of impishness about her and might have been the only white person that made Aminata laugh.  Certainly she and John Clarkson were about the only two whites she ever trusted or around whom she let down her guard.  I liked the passages with Daddy Moses and his ministering to his congregation in New York.  Finally, my favorite character was Georgia, who essentially becomes a second mother to Aminata when she is brought to the indigo plantation in South Carolina.  She struck me as someone who belonged in her own book, something along the lines of a Zora Neale Hurston novel.

I should add one final note of appreciation.  I thought it was rather profound how Hill discussed map making of that time and how the maps of Africa mostly showed a blank or a Terra incognita.  This frustrates Aminata to no end, since she hoped to learn a way back to her home village from these maps, but they are useless.   Towards the end of her time back in Africa, she decides that it isn't entirely the Europeans' fault but that Africans were also engaging in strategic withholding of information.  I particularly liked Aminata encountering this passage from Jonathan Swift's On Poetry, which seems particularly apt:

So geographers, in Afric maps, 
With savage pictures fill their gaps, 
And o'er unhabitable downs 
Place elephants for want of towns.

The entire poem can be found here.

On the whole this is an interesting and even important novel covering an obscured historical moment when Africans (free and enslaved) came to Canada.  It is a bit difficult to fully relate to the main character, who is a bit too perfect throughout, but there are several secondary characters that I enjoyed encountering.  It will certainly end up on my notable book list for 2016, though I am not expecting it to land in the top 5.

* I was checking out some other reviews, and it "triggered" my memory that the novel does entirely strain plausibility when Lindo shows up in the nick of time to prevent Aminata from being returned to her evil first master.  Not only does he just happen to be in New York and find out about the case, but he happened to be travelling around with her bill of sale.  Come on now...  And yet after this miraculous deliverance, she still can't bring herself to talk with him for more than a minute or two.

1 comment:

  1. This is one that I wasn't sure I would get around to reading either, but then, when I picked it up, I read it in about the same amount of time, shocked the whole time by how quickly the story was moving.

    From my perspective, I was relieved to know from the start that she had survived; I might've given up along the way if I didn't want to know exactly HOW she managed to survive (it's a lot of misery for the reader to endure, although certainly nothing like what was reality for many Aminatas of course).