The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill was one of the last books featured in Season Five of The Hour and the winner of the 2009 Canada Reads competition on CBC. It chronicles the amazing life of Aminata Diallo, a young woman stolen from her African home, sold into slavery and then travels from place to place looking for freedom from slavery, including a little known incident in Canada's own history.
Most Canadians know of Canada's involvement in the Underground Railroad, but few know that Canada had its own race issues and was not immune to the slave trade. Author Lawrence Hill found inspiration for the novel from the story of the migration of these black settlers to and from Africa. He took the name of his novel from the actual Book of Negroes, a relatively unknown historical document that lists the names and characteristics of the black loyalists who migrated from New York state to Nova Scotia towards the end of the American Revolutionary War with the promise that they would receive land and liberty when they arrived in the British colonies.
Unfortunately, what they were promised and what they found were two completely different things. In 1784, a group of unemployed white settlers attacked the black settlement of Birchtown, Nova Scotia, destroying the settlement. This attack became known as the first race riot in North America. Feeling angered and betrayed by the British, some of these settlers made the first journey back to Africa only ten years after arriving on the continent.
You can view a copy of the Book of Negroes through the Nova Scotia Archives.
This novel is a very interesting read. It's also a very heavy read, there were times when the sheer volume of suffering was really disturbing. Hill has a gift for painting an image in the mind, I often felt like I'd been transported right into the scene. This is not a "happily ever after" novel, there is a lot of sadness and human suffering in this book. But woven into the book is a demonstration of the strength of the human spirit.
If you've read the novel, leave us a comment and let us know what you thought of the book.
Check out Lawrence Hill's interview on The Hour.