I have to stop reading masterpieces. No, that would be silly. I just need to remember that each author’s masterpiece is their own unique creation, and that I am not John Irvine or Anthony Doerr … or Lawrence Hill. All of these men wrote what I would consider “masterpieces”, yet my three recent reads from these authors — respectively: A Prayer for Owen Meany; All the Light We Cannot See; and The Book of Negroes — are as different as they are inspiring. Different, yet equally impressive, feats of literature … and all well-earned 5-star reviews. The common trait that ties these three works together for me is the depth of social commentary that is woven into their pages. That is, what they say about the human condition.
I tried to start The Book of Negroes about five times over the past five years, and I have to admit that I found it difficult to get into. But I knew (in part because my wife kept telling me so) that it would be worth the effort … so I left it on the shelf and kept coming back to it from time to time. I am very glad that I did. Once I pushed through a few dozen pages, I was hooked.
Hill’s work of historical fiction is a rich and ambitious tale of a woman who was in many ways a composite of all the people whose collective efforts eventually overthrew the slave trade. Aminata Diallo is a strong, intelligent and likeable protagonist — a hero in every sense of the word. Hill’s descriptive prose and character development are first class, and his ability to weave a fictional story seamlessly into an historical backdrop is thoroughly impressive. I learned a great deal from this novel, and it left me wanting to learn more — about slavery, African history, American history, and especially about Canada’s role in the whole sordid mess that began when one group of humans decided that they were superior to another group of humans on the basis of skin colour.
I can see why The Book of Negroes is considered a Canadian classic, and I look forward to reading more from Lawrence Hill.