|Canadian author Lawrence Hill builds his historical novel around Aminata Diallo, a slave freed by the British. (LISA SAKULENSKY)|
In 1779, as the Revolutionary War was reaching its peak, Sir Henry Clinton issued the Phillipsburg Proclamation, promising freedom, security, and employment for any Patriot-owned slaves willing to desert the Americans and work for the British. Four years later, they partially honored that promise, relocating roughly 3,000 black men, women, and children who had served or lived behind British lines. The majority of these black Loyalists were sent to the barely developed colony of Nova Scotia. But before they embarked, their names and brief histories (including the names of their former owners) were written in "The Book of Negroes." This document - the most encyclopedic documentation of African-Americans until the start of the 19th century - served as inspiration for "Someone Knows My Name," a sweeping work of historical fiction by Canadian author Lawrence Hill.
The story opens in 1802 London as narrator Aminata Diallo, a former slave now under the patronage of British abolitionists, embarks on writing her memoir and issues a warning to readers that could be an epigraph for the entire book: "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."
The first few chapters paint a somewhat strained picture of Aminata's idyllic childhood. But the moment that she is abducted by African slave traders, author Hill strips Aminata's narrative of its forced innocence. The hardship of her three-month shackled march to the West African coast; the putrid stench of the slave ship and the inhuman conditions that she and her fellow captives endure for the duration of their journey to an island off the South Carolina shore; the grotesque grading and pricing and deal-making in the American slave market - all of these episodes, depicted with careful attention to historical detail, imbue Aminata with a painful sophistication about the ways of the world.
Her life in South Carolina is not an unmitigated misery. She creates a new family and learns in secret how to read and write. And in the course of her daily routines, Hill teaches us about the indigo trade, smallpox, herbal contraceptives, and always about the absolute precariousness of a slave's existence. He also peels back the layers of class and caste to reveal the collaboration and the competition among different oppressed minorities - between the native-born Negroes vs. first-generation Africans, and, in what is one of the more nuanced portraits in the book, between a Jewish slaveholder and the gentile peers who despise him.
Eventually Aminata makes her way north to New York City, where we see the rebels' fight for "freedom" through the perplexed eyes of escaped slaves. There, in one of this book's few bold departures from fact, she becomes the scribe who records the thousands of entries in "The Book of Negroes" before getting on the last boat to Nova Scotia. After 10 miserable years there, she assists British Navy Lieutenant John Clarkson in organizing 1,200 of these Black Loyalists in the first "back to Africa" movement, sailing to Sierra Leone to found the British colony of Freetown.
Aminata is an eloquent guide to 70 years of turbulent history spanning three continents. And while her uncanny proximity to the real slave traders, British officers, black freedom fighters, and English abolitionists strains credulity, this flaw (common to much historical fiction) pales next to the power of her story.
Now, more than 200 years later, as the horribly familiar dynamics of slavery, genocide, and mass migration play themselves out in Sudan, the reawakening that this novel delivers is all that really matters.
Someone Knows My Name
By Lawrence Hill
Norton, 486 pp., $24.95
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.