Veronique de Turenne
The remarkable thing about Lawrence Hill's fourth novel, Someone Knows My Name, the life story of an African Muslim girl sold into slavery, isn't her physical survival. Sure, that's wrenchingly rendered and gives the story its heart. But it's the girl's emotional survival, her constant and ferocious fight for humanity that gives the book its considerable soul.
Aminata Diallo is 11 years old when a group of black men step out from the trees near her village in West Africa and kidnap her. Her parents fight to the death for their daughter, but in vain. The child is leashed by the neck to a group of captives and force-marched, naked, for three months across the continent. There, British slave ships ride at anchor on the Sierra Leone coast, waiting to ferry their human cargo to the Thirteen Colonies.
It's 1745, and the transatlantic slave trade is in full, unapologetic swing; Hill doesn't flinch from the details of his heroine's ordeal: Aminata is beaten, branded, and starved. She's ogled and inspected by white men. She's betrayed by her fellow Africans, villagers who collude with the slavers. As staggering as the details of her degradation, though, are the observations of her facile mind.
But our captors were also marked by what they lacked: light in their eyes. Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully. To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity and to assert your own. Aminata's humanity is never in question. A grueling voyage brings her, more dead than alive, to South Carolina. There, she's sold to Robinson Appleby, an indigo producer. On Appleby's plantation, Aminata learns the realities of slave life, of her powerless place in a world ruled by whites, and of a lifesaving refuge in the secret, underground culture created by her fellow slaves.
Here, soon after her initial adjustment to plantation life, Aminata sees a group of new captives fresh off the slaver's boat.
Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death. I felt my stomach churning, my throat tightening. I looked down to avoid meeting their eyes. I was fed and they were not. I had clothes and they had none. I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn't matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim to the future. But the author has plans for Aminata. First, he lets her learn to read. Then, he moves her to New York, in the company of her new owner, a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo. Lindo is not unkind, and in his service, Aminata develops new skills and furthers her education. Though he refers to her as a "servant," he is, in fact, her owner, and he eventually betrays her.
When the American Revolution breaks out, Aminata escapes. Hill, whose previous writings brought close scrutiny to the tapestry of African-Canadian life, then shifts into the true heart of his tale: the little-known story of the move by 1,200 freed slaves from Canada back to Africa in 1792.
In the course of preparing for this journey, which was funded by staunch British abolitionists, the government collected biographical information on thousands of slaves eager to make the voyage. It's an extraordinary document, known as "The Book of Negroes." Excerpts from it form the endpapers of this book, and Hill uses it as the fulcrum for the final third of Aminata's tale, revealing the breadth and scope of the tragedy of the African slave trade, as well as a great deal about the mind-set of its defenders.
The pro-slavery men claimed that slavery was a humane institution that rescued Africans from barbarity in their homelands. Africans would simply kill each other in tribal wars if they were not liberated in the Americas, where they enjoyed the civilizing influence of Christianity. Chosen by abolitionists as a living symbol for their cause, the literate and well-spoken Aminata is placed in a position to refute these claims. But rather than let the white men write her life story for her, Aminata insists on putting quill to parchment on her own behalf, and Hill's novel takes the form of her memoir. We get plenty of scholarly details about life in the fledgling United States in the 18th century, of the slave trade and plantation life, of the indigo harvest and the crude and cruel conditions that produced America's prized blue cloth. Aminata's quick mind also rails against the lack of information about her homeland. The maps of the day show a spare outline of the continent, then cover the interior with illustrations of lions and naked natives.
It's ironic, then, that the book itself is without any map, neither a reproduction of those antique charts that conveyed so little, nor a modern map that, with a route of the epic journey forced on so many Africans, could have taught Hill's readers so much. If the novel sees future printings, adding maps would be a smart and necessary fix.
In the end, with the last page read and the book percolating in the mind, it's not the history and horror or the lore of Someone Knows My Name that linger. Rather, it's Aminata's spirit, summed up in a haunting warning.
Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the color pink. Pink is taken as the color of innocence, the color of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. What could easily have been a screed is instead lovely and lyrical and, as a result, all the more powerful. Through Aminata, the helpless, faceless, and forgotten Africans lost to centuries of the slave trade have had restored to them not just an unflinching history, but a long-denied name as well. --Veronique de Turenne
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles-based journalist, essayist and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.
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Unrolling a map of the world, Aminata Diallo puts one finger on the coast
of West Africa and another on London. The first is where she was born in
1745, the second is her location six decades later. Her story is what happened
in between, and her remarkable voice is the heart and soul of Hill's
magnificent novel. Brought before the British public by the
abolitionists to reveal the realities of slavery, she has
come, old and weary, to change the tide of history and bear witness to some of the world's most grievous wrongs.
Kidnapped and taken from her family as a child, Diallo is forced aboard a
ship bound for South Carolina, where she arrives at age 12, weak and ill,
the other slaves her only family. But soon she is sold again and begins an
exodus that will lead to Canada, where she discovers the same relentless
hardship and stinging prejudice. Her hunger for freedom drives her back
across the Atlantic to England, and in 1792, Aminata undertakes yet another
ocean crossing, bound for the place of her birth.
(Spring 2008 Selection)
Lawrence Hill's historical intelligence was already manifest in his 1997 novel, Any Known Blood, in which he used racial and geographic borders to explore and transform a Canadian story. In his new novel, Someone Knows My Name, Hill has extended his range and refined his craft to produce a compelling narrative that moves from mid-18th-century West Africa to South Carolina, Manhattan, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and London…Hill's hugely impressive historical work is completely engrossing and deserves a wide, international readership.
The Washington Post
…[a] wonderfully written fictional slave narrative…
The New York Times
Stunning, wrenching and inspiring, the fourth novel by Canadian novelist Hill (Any Known Blood) spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners: nasty indigo producer Robinson Appleby and, later, Jewish duty inspector Solomon Lindo. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill handles the pacing and tension masterfully, particularly during the beginnings of the American revolution, when the British promise to free Blacks who fight for the British: Aminata's related, eventful travels to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone follow. In depicting a woman who survives history's most trying conditions through force of intelligence and personality, Hill's book is a harrowing, breathtaking tour de force. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Around 1745, young Aminata Diallo is abducted from her West African home and sold into slavery in South Carolina. An observant and highly intelligent child, she quickly learns not only how to speak English but also how to read and write. On a trip to New York City with her master, Aminata escapes during chaotic anti-British demonstrations. She helps the embattled British compile The Book of Negroes, a list of thousands of black Loyalists, and these slaves are transported to Nova Scotia and granted their freedom. Later some of them are sent to Sierra Leone as part of an abolitionist social experiment, and Aminata finally realizes her long-held dream of returning home. By setting the book early in the Revolutionary period, Canadian novelist Hill (Any Known Blood) finds something new in the familiar slave narrative. Unfortunately, his didactic purpose gets the upper hand and overwhelms the story. Aminata is simply too noble to be believable, and other major characters are mainly symbolic. Nevertheless, Hill's fascinating source material makes this a good choice for book clubs and discussion groups. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
Edward St. John
School Library Journal
Adult/High School -During the 18th century, Aminata Diallo is kidnapped from her village, survives the ocean voyage on a slave ship, is purchased by an indigo producer from South Carolina, and gets caught in the Revolutionary War. Later, she is traded to a Jewish duty inspector. She marries Chekura, a boy from a neighboring village, and gives birth to two children. Aminata's trials continue as she and her husband take part in Britain's promise of freedom for Loyalists by traveling to Nova Scotia, where she continues to long to return to Africa, but ends up in London instead. Throughout the story, her major assets are her ability to read and write and to serve as a midwife, which help in her quest for freedom. With mature themes (e.g., a rape scene on the ship, descriptive killings, and sexual situations), this book is suited for older teens. Hill clearly researched multiple people and sources to provide an accurate account of Aminata's heroic journey and brings to life crucial world history. Teens who enjoyed Sharon Draper's Copper Sun (S & S, 2006) will appreciate this page-turning novel.-Gregory Lum, Jesuit High School, Portland, OR Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Globe and Mail
“A masterpiece, daring and impressive in its geographic, historical and human reach.”
Delia Jarrett-Macauley - Washington Post
“Lawrence Hill's hugely impressive historical work is completely engrossing and deserves a wide, international readership.”
Jennifer Berman - Bookforum
“With grace and compassion, Hill populates true and harrowing experience with an authentic herojust as good historical fiction requires.”
Kim Lundstrom - Real Change
“I found myself surprised on occasion to catch sight of Mr. Hill's name on the cover.... He had me believing that this tale came not from the imagination and research of a 21st-century male author, but from the experience of an 18th-century African woman.”
Charles Shea LeMone - Roanoke Times
“An inspirational novel of imaginative excellence and captivating power.... Every step of the way, Lawrence Hill offers readers a vivid portrayal of the emotional landscape that brings Aminata's tale to life. I highly recommend reading this poignant book.”
Eileen Charbonneau - Historical Novels Review
“Astonishing in scope, humanity and beauty, this is one of those very rare novels in which the deep joy of reading transcends its time and place. Like ?To Kill a Mockingbird?, ?Someone Knows My Name? lets readers experience a life, one footstep at a time, beside an unforgettable protagonist.”