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The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

  tbonCBC Radio’s annual Canada Reads program has become a passionate debate about Canadian Literature and has encouraged Canadians to read, along with the panellists, the five books nominated each year. The half-hour debates will air on CBC Radio One from March 2 to March 6 at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. (half an hour later in Newfoundland). For one week five celebrity panellists will debate the merits of each book. Hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, Canada Reads is officially underway with five works of fiction being announced.

Day by day, books are voted off the list, until one panellist triumphs with the book for Canada to read this year. Of course it is much more interesting for the listener if they have read the books being debated. So this year I am doing so and every other week I will review one of the books in the running for the 2009 Canada Reads Award.

The books being debated in 2009 are – The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards, The Outlander by Gil Adamson, The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay, and Fruit by Brian Francis.

The Book of Negroes might seem to be a sure winner. This novel has already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. I have been recommending it to customers since it was published in February 2007.

The Book of Negroes is the story of a negro woman, captured as a child in Africa, who lived as a slave in the southern United States, as a free woman in New York, was then transported with the Loyalists to Nova Scotia, repatriated to Sierra Leone, and then finally travelled to England to aid the abolitionists in their attempt to pass a bill through the British Parliament to abolish slavery. 

Aminata Diallo tells the story. Aminata is eleven years old when she is captured - old enough to remember her home. She has come from a family of loving parents; she is literate in her own language and finds other languages easy to learn. She has assisted her mother at births in the village, and is as accomplished as any midwife. She learns quickly and easily, and is secretly taught to read and write by an older female slave after her arrival in America. Aminata’s first owner operates an Indigo Plantation in South Carolina. Aminata is portrayed as a young woman who knows that if she rebels and fights every incident of oppression she will never survive to achieve freedom. She lives each day as she must in order to become free, her only desire to somehow return to her home one day. She attempts to hide her intelligence and her literacy but a northerner who visits the plantation discovers it; she is purchased by him and taken to the north.

Lawrence Hill uses the story of Aminata to tell the story of the slave trade as it relates to Canada. The black population in Nova Scotia was originated with the former slaves who came to that province as Loyalists along with the white Empire Loyalists who left the United States in the late 1700s. The quality of life these former slaves found in Nova Scotia was far less than they were promised. They lived in poverty and isolation - in a cold country - and many could not imagine that their lives would ever improve. Lawrence Hill has succeeded in writing a masterful work of historical fiction that will intrigue and excite readers.

The Book of Negroes is being defended on Canada Reads by Avi Lewis.

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