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A Slave's Great Journey

By Delia Jarrett-Macauley,
author of "Moses, Citizen and Me," which won the 2005 Orwell Prize for political writing
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME

By Lawrence Hill

Norton. 486 pp. $24.95

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.

The heroine and narrator of this wonderful work is Aminata Diallo. Torn from her loving parents, a jeweler and a midwife in a Malian village, she is a mere 11 years old when she is chained along with other captives, taken to the coast and transported to the New World, where she is sold to a brutal plantation owner in South Carolina.

In heart-stopping prose, Hill describes Aminata's shocks and bewilderment, skillfully interlacing the voices of older women, elderly male leaders and young boys. Like others who endured the Middle Passage, Aminata holds on to whatever vestiges of power she can, such as the right to name herself. She embodies her simple but prosperous homeland in which religion passes from one generation to the next in the form of the Koran, traditional marriage and cultural practices.

Hill balances his graphic depictions of the horrors of enslavement with meticulously researched portrayals of plantation life. In South Carolina, Aminata learns about the production of indigo, becomes literate and numerate, and finds love. However, her brief spells of happiness are repeatedly suffocated by loss and mourning.

Hill's fiction owes an obvious debt to the female North American slave narrative and to writers such as Mary Prince, whose polemical autobiography, "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave," was published in London and Edinburgh in 1831. One scene echoes the outspoken words of the abolitionist crusader Sojourner Truth, who asked a women's suffrage convention in 1852, "Aren't I a woman?" Hill describes Aminata addressing her second master, Lindo: "The anger in my own voice surprised me. I jumped up from the table, knocking over an ink pot. . . . 'I am no wench. I am a wife. I am a mother. Aren't I a woman?' "

Although whoever taught Aminata to read broke the law, her literacy becomes her saving grace. She accompanies Lindo on business to Manhattan and escapes into the chaos of the Revolutionary War. Hill brings to life an important historical document by having Aminata serve as the scribe who helps to write the Book of Negroes, a list of the Loyalist slaves rewarded for service to the king with safe passage to Nova Scotia.

That turbulent exodus was tracked in James Walker's scholarly history, "The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870." Following Walker, Hill shows that the refugees' suffering and losses in Nova Scotia constantly reminded them that they may have come "up from slavery" but could not easily be rid of it. When the Sierra Leone Company -- a philanthropic, business-oriented group of British abolitionists -- come looking for "adventurers" to settle in their new colony in West Africa, Aminata assists in moving more than a thousand Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone and aids the abolitionist cause by revealing the realities of slavery to the British public. Horrified to discover that the traffic in slaves continues with the compliance of African people, she challenges the wrongdoing at every turn.

Earlier this year, Simi Bedford also wrestled with the fate of early Sierra Leoneans in her novel "Not With Silver." It is not surprising that at this time, when the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade is being commemorated and Sierra Leone has been so much in the news, that two comparable novels should draw on the same subject matter. Nor was I surprised, reading these chapters set in my ancestral home of Sierra Leone, to find myself wishing as Aminata does: "This story . . . will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason."

Lawrence Hill's hugely impressive historical work is completely engrossing and deserves a wide, international readership.

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