The Bondwoman's Narrative

The Bondwoman's Narrative

4.1 18
by Hannah Crafts, Anna Deavere Smith

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A major publishing event, this recently discovered novel written in the 1850s by a runaway slave is a fascinating story and a historically important piece of literature.See more details below


A major publishing event, this recently discovered novel written in the 1850s by a runaway slave is a fascinating story and a historically important piece of literature.

Editorial Reviews

Dallas Morning News Review
...a work of sagacity and moral purpose...
NY Times Book Review
...a remarkable historical in insight...always interesting...
Written before the Civil War and bought in February 2001 at an auction by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., this novel is believed to be the work of a former slave. In the engaging introduction, Gates discusses how he came upon the handwritten manuscript, the extensive authentication process, as well as the ultimately fruitless investigation into the author's true identity. "[T]he life of the woman who just may have been the first female African American novelist will remain one of the most exciting mysteries of African American literature," he concludes. The book tells a presumably autobiographical story about a literate mulatto who serves as a waiting maid to several plantation mistresses in Virginia and North Carolina. While Hannah, the protagonist and first-person narrator, describes the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, she also writes much about the grand estates and social doings of white folks. She punctures their pretensions, but she doesn't always recognize her own snobbery about field hands, as when she comments on the "nobler order" of house slaves. Readers swept up by the excitement of Gates' potentially groundbreaking discovery may be disappointed by the degree to which the nineteenth- century conventions of white popular fiction stifle the black narrator's voice.
—Tom LeClair

Publishers Weekly
Nothing intrigues quite the way an old manuscript does: there's the story told in its pages, but there's also the story of the pages. In this volume's lively, provocative introduction, Gates, Harvard chair of African-American studies, describes his discovery of a handwritten manuscript from the collection of Dorothy Porter Wesley, the famous Howard University librarian, in an auction. Identified in the auction catalogue as a "fictionalized biography... of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts," the manuscript, Gates thought, might be the "first novel written by a woman who had been a slave." After purchasing it, he undertook the painstaking work of authenticating it and determining its author. Though Dr. Joe Nickell (the sleuth who proved the Jack the Ripper diaries fraudulent) firmly limits the manuscript's composition to 1853 to 1861 and Gates locates a few candidates for authorship, the historical Hannah Crafts remains elusive. Whoever Hannah Crafts wasDand about that there is sure to be some discussionDshe was a talented storyteller. Though Crafts appears self-taught and borrows from many sourcesDinfluences include other slave narratives, 19th-century sentimental and gothic novels and, as Gates noted in a letter to the New Yorker, Charles DickensDshe propels her story along, vividly describing the heroes and villains she entangles in her multiple plots. A mulatto, Hannah grows up a house slave in Virginia, learning to read in secret. When her master at last marries, Hannah becomes a maid to the new mistress, a woman who seems haunted. In fact, she is hunted: someone who holds proof that her mother is a slave is blackmailing her. Knowing her mistress will be sold if exposed, Hannah encourages her to flee, and flees with her. Thus begins Hannah's journey, as she passes through the hands of prison guard, slave trader, benevolent caretaker, mean and petty masters and finally to freedom. The style is sentimental and effusive, but it is also winning. Crafts's portrayal of the WheelersDa small-minded but ambitious couple who prefer to "live at the public expense"Dis incisive and utterly familiar. Though Gates chose to touch up Crafts's punctuation, he left her spelling as is and included her revisions, which were remarkably few. Crafts clearly understood the needs of her narrative and the conventions of the 19th-century novel in a way that many first novelists (of any century) don't. While scholars will have to decide whether this is "the unadulterated `voice' of the fugitive slave herself," lay readers can simply enjoy Crafts's remarkable story and Gates's own story of discovering her. (Apr.) Forecast: With Warner's publicity push (editor tour, TV appearances, national advertising), Gates's first-rate reputation, the prospect of this being the first novel by a former slave woman and the manuscript's own merit, count on this title to be a very big seller. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
To quote from the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, November, 2002: A wide range of slave experiences is open to view in this unique novel, told as a first-person narrative and purportedly written in the 1850s. Hannah, who uses her light skin to advantage, receives some education, including enlightened discussion, during numerous visits with a sympathetic older couple who live near the plantation. As she is shunted from master to master, one glimpses the life of the personal servant and confidante, the house slave in settings poor and aristocratic, the field worker, and finally the runaway who successfully makes it to the North and freedom. Gothic elements entertain, and Crafts draws a chilling characterization of a trader who coldly sells "passed" persons back into slavery. Gates purchased this novel in manuscript at a Swan Galleries auction of African Americana. He and other scholars note internal evidence such as knowledge of the Virginia and North Carolina escape routes. They assure readers that a white writer would never have assumed black identity in the slave period. This may be the first novel ever written by a slave and possibly "by any black woman at all." KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Warner, 365p., Boardman
Library Journal
Read by Anna Deavere Smith, this is an unprecedented autobiographical tale written in the 1850s by an African American slave who is probably the first black woman to write a novel. Crafts recounts her life story while simultaneously revealing her new mistress's secret that forces them to flee from slave hunters. Throughout the book, the author's path crosses with a powerful and determined enemy. Typical of sentimental and gothic novels, this suspenseful work is atypical in that it provides a black female writer's account of the brutalities of her society. A highly remarkable literary and historical work by a self-educated woman who gives a slave's experience of slavery from a humanistic view. The introduction and commentary by Henry Louis Gates discusses the provenance of the original manuscript and its place in history and literature. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Bernadette Lopez-Fitzsimmons, Manhattan Coll. Libs., Riverdale, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Hachette Audio
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged, 6 Cassettes, 9 Hrs.
Product dimensions:
4.13(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.50(d)

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