The Book of Negroes

The Book of Negroes

HarperCollins Canada

Chosen as the winner for Canada Reads 2009, The Book of Negroes weaves together fiction and the realities of slavery into a powerful, haunting tale of one woman's extraordinary life.
Throughout decades of great adversity and numerous difficult journeys, Aminata remains true to herself and in the end tells her own remarkable story.

The Book of Negroes


Lawrence Hill's stunning novel, The Book of Negroes (published in the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name ), tells the story of Aminata Diallo, an African girl abducted into slavery and taken to the American South in the mid-1700s. Determined, resourceful and resilient, Aminata survives decades of bondage and crippling losses with her indomitable spirit intact.

The author began thinking about writing this novel back in 1982, after reading James Walker's The Black Loyalists , a history of the American blacks who served the British during the American Revolutionary War . The British rewarded these people with the promise of land in Nova Scotia, but the harsh racism they encountered drove many of them to abandon Canada for life in Sierra Leone.

Lawrence Hill was astonished to learn that about a third of the passengers who sailed to Sierra Leone had actually been born in Africa. They had been enslaved in America, found freedom in the northern colonies, travelled to Canada and eventually returned to Africa, all in the course of a single lifetime.

With The Book of Negroes, Hill brings together two popular literary traditions. One is the slave narrative, in which blacks recount their journey from bondage to freedom. The other is the Victorian novel, à la Charles Dickens, with its well-crafted, picaresque plot; vivid, often larger-than-life characters; mysterious coincidences; and examination of social ills of the day.

Aminata is representative of the female slave experience. Women like her endured the sadistic Middle Passage, toiled from sunrise to sunset on plantations, were raped by their masters and had their families torn apart.

At the same time, Aminata's unique gifts -- her ability to read and write, her facility with languages and her knowledge of delivering babies -- allow the author to place her at the centre of actual historical events.

During the Revolutionary War, for instance, Aminata is hired to list the names of the Black Loyalists in a bound register called The Book of Negroes. And in London, England, near the end of her life, she is invited by famous British abolitionist William Wilberforce to tell her story before a parliamentary committee studying the evils of the slave trade. It is this combination of the real and the imaginary that makes Aminata one of Canada's most unforgettable characters.

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Author Biography

Lawrence Hill was born in Toronto in 1957 to an interracial American couple, the civil rights activists Daniel and Donna Hill. The pair came to Canada just after marrying, wishing to raise a family in a less racially hostile environment. Lawrence's background is black and white and Canadian and American, and this range of experiences and perspectives informs his writing.

He has written several books, including two previous novels: Some Great Thing (1992) and the immensely popular Any Known Blood (1997), a fictionalized account of his family history that crisscrosses the U.S./Canada border.

The Book of Negroes, a national bestseller, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for overall best book and has been widely acclaimed in Canada and internationally.

Lawrence's non-fiction works include a memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada and The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq , co-written with Joshua Key.

Lawrence has a B.A. in economics from Laval University and an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. He has worked as a reporter for the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press and has won numerous awards, including a National Magazine Award for an article that appeared in Walrus magazine: "Is Africa's Pain Black America's Burden?" and an American Wilbur Award for best television documentary for Seeking Salvation: A History of the Black Church in Canada .

Lawrence's father, the late Daniel Hill, Sr., was the director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and, later, Ombudsman of Ontario. His brother is the singer/songwriter Dan Hill.

Lawrence grew up in the suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, and currently lives in Burlington, Ontario, with his wife and their five children.

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The Original Book of Negroes

The Book of Negroes borrows its title from a 1783 British document. It listed the names of the blacks who were awarded passage out of New York after the American Revolutionary War. These individuals had to prove they had served the British army for at least a year and that they were free. Copies of the book are available at a handful of libraries, with the original held in London, England. It contains the names and descriptions of 3,000 black men women and children. But in real life a black woman named Aminata Diallo did not enter this information. The scribes were officers of the British navy. The ledger reveals that the vast majority of Black Loyalists settled in cities in Nova Scotia, including Annapolis Royal, Shelburne and Digby, but some also went to Quebec, England and Germany.

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"The most mesmerizing novel I read this year was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. I found it historically and rhetorically magnetic all the way through and it left a powerful imprint when I'd finished. Magnificent." -- Hon. Rosalie Abella

"This is one of the most stunning novels I have read in the past 10 years because it reveals not only a powerful narrative, but also because it challenges accepted ideas of our history." -- Bruce Meyer

"This book tells the story of the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745 who at the age of 11 is captured and sold into slavery. Detailing her struggles as a slave on a South Carolina plantation and her efforts to regain her freedom, the story is both harrowing and awe-inspiring." -- Heather Reisman

"[A] totally gripping page-turner of a novel. It's the kind of compulsive read that makes you look forward to public transit. That turns a middle seat on Air Canada into your favourite place to be. That flips your bedside clock from midnight to 3 a.m. with no apparent intervening hours. Everyone deserves this kind of total immersion reading, the antidote to a fragmented life: The Book of Negroes delivers....[T]he central character Aminata Diallo is an unforgettable, original voice with a capacity for insight that rings as true as the call of a circling bird... For all these reasons, and for its tremendous compassion, humour and lovely, liquid prose, this is the novel that Canada should read." -- Canada Reads panelist Avi Lewis

"A mesmerizing, utterly compelling journey into the heart of slavery, The Book of Negroes is destined to join the great classics of our times. Inside a world of brutality, a powerful spirit is evoked with such sensitivity and lyricism that it is impossible not to be deeply moved, and impossible to stop reading. Lawrence Hill has embodied the narrator completely, and I in turn felt intimately connected to this wondrous woman. Stylistically flawless, thematically layered and historically fascinating, this novel is a masterpiece." -- Edeet Ravel, author of A Wall of Light and Look for Me

"Lawrence Hill, a cultural and spiritual descendant of West African griots, has used his vast storytelling talents to create an epic story that spans three continents. The Book of Negroes recites the pain, misery and liberation of one African woman, Aminata Diallo, who was stolen from her homeland and sold into American slavery. Through Aminata, Hill narrates the terrifying story of slavery and puts at the centre a female experience of the African Diaspora. I wept upon reading this story. The Book of Negroes is courageous, breathtaking, simply brilliant." -- Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angélique and Copper Woman

" The Book of Negroes is a novel that should be sung, rather than read. It is a song of worship, in praise of the taste of an orange, the smell of a newborn; and it is a lament to the horrors we are capable of inflicting on each other, no matter what the colour of our skin. But above all else it is a love song urging us to celebrate our romance with our own dear humanity. "Ba means river," Lawrence Hills' powerful character Aminata writes in The Book of Negroes . "It also means mother." When I finished this novel, I held my children close and cried over them, because this novel was a heartbreaking reminder that they are the river through my life, just as much as I am the river through theirs, and this is a river that will continue to flow long after we are gone. The Book of Negroes is not only a lesson on where we came from, but a warning about the future, a future that, with vigilance, we might avoid. It is a courageous, challenging and beautiful book." -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Cure for Death by Lightning