This was one of my book clubs' book for this month and I have to be honest, I was not looking forward to reading it at all. Books dealing with slavery are always painful and I find them hard to read in February, the greyest, bleakest month of the year. How ridiculous to moan about the weather making me feel not prepared for a desperate book, no? Certainly my life is pretty cushy and the main character, stolen from her homeland and sold into slavery, facing hardship and horror, should have had it so easy, right? But I felt that way, resistant to the book. So it's a good thing that book club obligated me to read this because it really was a marvelous read and certainly one that is fantastic for book clubs.
Aminata Diallo is eleven and on the verge of becoming a woman. She helps her mother catch babies in their village and neighboring villages. She is pretty happy and generally doted upon by her parents. But one evening, returning from delivering a baby, she and her mother are set upon by strange men and Aminata is stolen, her mother killed. As she is forced past her village, she witnesses her father's brutal death as well. After a three month trek, she arrives at a slave trading post on the coast and ultimately embarks on a slaver journeying to America, specifically South Carolina. This book covers Aminata's, called Meena, incredible life. From a free young girl in Africa to a slave in the southern US and ultimately a free woman in the north who chooses to use her incredible intelligence to carve out a life for herself both in the US and Canada and back in Africa and to become a potent symbol for the abolitionists in London. The scope of the novel is immense but it works. In focusing in on one main character, Hill has personalized history that makes us uncomfortable, history that we've forgotten, and history that we choose to forget or to ignore.
Meena is an amazing woman and she is incredibly gifted, learning languges like a sponge, picking up monetary systems, and practicing midwifery and some natural medicine in order to increase her value. Slavery is portrayed brutally, although Aminata, while suffering it, certainly doesn't have the appalling existence that some slaves did, thanks in large part to her skill in becoming whoever her current master wants. She faces the heartbreak common to slaves where family is torn from her and friends who have become a makeshift family themselves also disappear forever. Her desire for someone to know who she is, what her experience is, and to see into the truth of her soul is agonizing.
Highlighting the issues of survival and identity, strength and love, trust and despair, this book never shies away from the true horrors of existence as a slave and even as a free black woman dependent on the duplicitousness of the white community that wants to use her. Hill has written a marvelous and historically important book. My only quibble with it was really at the end when an unbelievable coincidence changed the tone of the book a bit abruptly. Aside from that, the writing was engrossing and Aminata was a wonderful character. Even as thick as the book is, it takes no time at all to be so comsumed by the plot and characters that you'll have a hard time putting it down. Highly recommended reading.
Incidentally, in Hill's native Canada, this was titled The Book of Negroes. For some reason, the publisher felt compelled to change the title here in the US but the replacement title does reflect the story very well.