Book review

TITLE: The Book of Negroes AUTHOR: Lawrence Hill


Mark conliffe


If you haven’t turned to Lawrence Hill’s wonderful award-winning The Book of Negroes because of the CBC mini-series (based on this book), and if you didn’t read it when it was published in 2007, please let me nudge you firmly to get this novel. It is a breathtaking work of historical fiction, and its extraordinary protagonist and narrator Aminata Diallo already has become one of literature’s most memorable characters.

The novel’s action extends nearly sixty years, from 1745 to 1804, and takes us from Sierra Leone to the eastern United States (a plantation in South Carolina and New York City), to Nova Scotia (Birchtown and Shelburne), back to Sierra Leone, and then finally to London, England. We live this time and make these journeys through Aminata’s memories, and, although they give us remarkable insight into this period and these parts of the world, the novel is first and foremost about her.

She is an individual of great character, whose life story at its simplest is that of a daughter and free child who is kidnapped and quickly becomes an orphan and slave. She holds her parent’s examples and teachings close to her heart and turns to them for guidance as she grows with perseverance and strength into a woman, mother, midwife, confidante, teacher, activist, and abolitionist. She learns to speak other languages, to read, and to write, and because of these abilities she also becomes an author of the Book of Negroes, a document that was used to register African-American slave-loyalists who were evacuated to Nova Scotia by the British during the American Revolutionary War.

She is a chronicler whose far-reaching eye for details brings what she learns to life. She recalls her village home in its smells, sounds, and feelings such that we can imagine clearly the chores and joys that she shared with her family. We sense the horrific conditions under which slaves were marched through the jungle, transported across the Atlantic, and forced to work on plantations. And we learn firsthand of the communities they built for themselves with whatever supplies were at hand in the towns and cities. In Aminata’s telling we see from a fresh perspective how human beings are able to hurt and help others.


Indeed, through her recounting we appreciate how Aminata and others endure, make life, create happiness, and find love. Yes, Hill gives us a narrator who makes vividly real these times and places, but moreover he depicts how in the most meager and demanding circumstances Aminata’s beauty and fortitude rise above those conditions. We know from the start that The Book of Negroes is her story, and thus, she will survive to tell of her hardships and enjoyments, of her disappointments and accomplishments, but that knowledge doesn’t diminish our respect for her indomitable spirit and our desire to keep reading.



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