In the last four years, another name has been added to the growing list of Canadian novelists who merit international recognition among the very best novelists writing in English and I didn’t know anything about him until this week I read his magnificent novel The Book of Negroes, published in 2007 by Harper Collins Publishing Ltd, of Toronto. The name of the author is Lawrence Hill, himself a black Canadian, who comes from a well-known family, his father having been Dan Hill, once Ontario’s Ombudsman, and his brother Dan Hill, the singer. The edition of the book I read is a handsome illustrated edition published in 2009, whose 506 pages include more than 100 beautifully reproduced pictures of almost every aspect of the slave trade, which is the subject of the book.
I bought this book as a gift for my son and grandson, who both have black blood in their veins, but I was surprised to learn it was a novel when I recently received a phone call from a friend in Montreal urging me to read it. The book is every bit as good as she told me, rivettingly written in simple, straight-forward English as it details through its unforgettable characters the course of the monstrous slave traded that operated between the West African coast and the centres of international commerce in Europe and North America.
The book deals with the specific years between 1756, when its narrator is kidneapped as a 12-year-old girl from her village in West Africa, and 1803, when, as an educated woman growing old, she decides to put down the story of her life. The central character, Aminata Diallo, does not spare us a single detail of her terrible experiences, and in telling it she emerges as one of the greatest characters created in any modern novel. First captured, then force-marched to the coast, then on to a slave ship at the notorious takeoff point Bance Island, off the coast of what is now the nation of Sierra Leone, then her terrible experience as one of the few survivors of a voyage from hell, then her sale as a slave in Charleston, South Carolina, then after nearly 20 years there her escape to New York, where she completes her study of languages that has always fascinated her, becomes a leader among the freed slaves, but finally decides to go to Nova Scotia where greater freedom is falsely promised, in the hope that she can there fulfil her dream of returning to her village. Ten years later she signs on to join the new freed-slave colony of Sierra Leone, where a company specially organized for this promises that the slaves shall build their own society, a promise that she quickly learns will never be fulfilled, as all the decisions are made by the company-men, who are more or less forced to collaborate with their neighbours, the slave-traders.
In the course of making these journeys she, as one of the few educated former slaves, has been employed in recording the names of slaves in a book that actually exists called The Book of Negroes. This is said to be the most complete account of the people taken as slaves, and it also provides a (slightly misleading) but suitable title for Mr. Hill's fictionalized account of the experiences of the people whose names are registered therein.
By this time she has learned many of the West African languages, and is always trying to find how she might penetrate the interior --- an interior that is never detailed on Western maps except by the planting of elephants where villages might be --- but even local village people decline to help her, since they seem intent on keeping outsiders away from their villages if at all possible. Eventually she does what she has always vowed she never would do, she makes a deal with a slave-trader to take her to her village. But along the way she discovers that he intends to sell her when the moment is ripe. So she takes off into the jungle, and when she is nursed back to health by a group of villagers who pick her up half-dead, she decides to abandon her dream of returning to the village, but to go instead to London, as she has been invited to do because her sponsors --- liberal Englishmen all --- believe she could have an impact on the movement to abolish slavery.
Through all of these adventures Ms Diallo has suffered every tragedy that could befall a person. She finds a husband, has two children by him, loses both of them because of betrayal by people she had come to trust, loses her husband to a storm at sea, is raped, brutalized, but finally, a woman who has somehow won through, she is honored for her achievements.
The telling of this brutal tale is full of felicity, wonderful touches of humanity that somehow or other makes itself felt even in the grimmest circumstances, And the impact of this is heightened by the extremely beautiful prose written by Mr. Hill, simple, direct, unfanciful, unpretentious, indeed, a style so perfectly suited to its subject as to be almost miraculous. Need I add that although one never loses sight of the monstrousness of the slave trade, his is not a tract: it is merely a human story whose subject is one dealt with by novelists throughout the ages, man’s inhumanity to man. I cannot recommend this work too highly.This man is a great writer. I imagine others are not as ignorant of his works as I have been, but in case there are others, I append here a list of books he has written, the titles of which give an indication of his commitment to the cause of his people. (I have not read any of these, not yet.) He has produced two previous novels, Any Known Blood, and Some Great Thing. He has written four non-fiction books: The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Way from the War in Iraq (with Joshua Key); Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada; Women of Vision: the Story of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association; and Trials and Triumphs: the Story of African-Canadians. And he names among his productions a film, Seeking Salvation: A History of the Black Church in Canada.