Historical fiction is the bastard child of the literary world. Too often the marriage of vivid characters, colorful locales, and actual events produces bodice rippers, romantic fodder dressed up in a well-researched package. It’s no doubt hard to pen a historical novel that doesn’t succumb to the sensational or get stuck in factual minutiae. But at its best, the genre can be an eye-opener, combining heroic characters and real-life drama, pushing fact through the sieve of illusion yet never losing sight of its ability to inform.
Case in point, Canadian writer Lawrence Hill’s expansive third novel, Someone Knows My Name—the American edition of the otherwise- (and more provocatively) titled Book of Negroes—which takes on the subject of slavery, as told through the eyes of one well-traveled African-born woman. Spanning six decades, four continents, and countless tragedies, it is a tale of one eventful life—and of the Black Loyalists of the American Revolution—that serves to illuminate a footnote to a gruesome chapter of world history.
“Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” wrote Harriet Jacobs in her diary, published as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861. Hill cites Jacobs’s text as one of his many sources, and Aminata Diallo, his protagonist, borrows generously from Jacobs’s narrative of sexual and institutional servitude. Hill traces Aminata’s history, starting with her childhood in Bayo, West Africa, her abduction by British slave traders, her survival of the Middle Passage, and her early life on an indigo plantation in South Carolina in the 1750s. In excruciating detail, he recounts the dysentery, beatings, and starvation. When her first-born son is sold, she exclaims, “My heart and my body were screaming.” In the face of utter powerlessness, her only option is to carry on: “I knew that I had to understand the buckra [whites] to survive among them.”
For Aminata, the ability to read, write, and “catch babies” ultimately distinguishes her from her fellow slaves. She survives years with a brutish plantation owner and with Solomon Lindo, a Jewish duty inspector in Charleston, chiefly because she is literate and skilled and because the sheer novelty of an educated black woman at the end of the eighteenth century is enough for others to fear, revere, or simply find useful. When she travels to New York City with Lindo at the start of the Revolution, she meets Sam Fraunces, the free black owner-proprietor of the Fraunces Tavern, who helps orchestrate her escape “up Broadway and into the woods.” She flees, to live among the shacks and runaways of Canvas Town, just north of the city, and shortly joins many other former slaves in alliance with the British.
Tens of thousands of African-American slaves, in fact, threw in their lots with the British in return for promises of full protection, freedom, and land. The land part didn’t quite work out as expected, and three thousand Black Loyalists were eventually relocated by the British to Nova Scotia. Aminata is among this migrant contingent. With her intelligence and eloquence—Hill artfully tracks the evolution of her voice—she is the ideal candidate to lead her people, and by inscribing the names and histories of her fellow travelers in the “Book of Negroes,” she finally gains herself and many others their passage north.
Names, then, figure prominently throughout the tale, whether it’s the generic Mary (“Buckra men called Negro women ‘Mary’ when they didn’t know their names”) or the near-nameless maps of Africa filled with “sketchings of elephants, lions and bare-breasted women.” To the white man of the 1770s, Africa was merely a landmass with a boundary labeled “Gold Coast” or “Slave Coast.” To Aminata, Africa is her homeland, and throughout the struggles of her life—the death of her husband; the kidnapping of her second child—she dreams of returning to the Africa of her memory. Eventually, she does, joining a small group of Canadian settlers and their leader, John Clarkson, who help found the Freetown colony in Sierra Leone. “I had expected to be overjoyed,” Aminata says, “but instead felt deflated.” After a lifetime of longing, she learns that with her Western manners, mode of dress, and education, she really can’t go home again. “You have the face of someone born in this land, but you come with the toubabu. You are a toubab with a black face,” says a local Temne woman, leaving Aminata literally neither here nor there and with a case of Stockholm syndrome centuries before the phenomenon had a name.
“We are travelling people,” Aminata concludes, and however fast-paced Hill’s text, this observation is a serious understatement. Hill covers a lot of territory, and his volume stands as a thoughtful counterpart to other works, like Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s college-syllabus favorite Beloved, that quarry the brutalities of slavery in a fictional form. These literary landmarks were shocking when first published, but never quite as shocking as the slave narratives themselves, by Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Olaudah Equiano, to name just a few. Taking these stories and translating them into fiction is a delicate operation, one that must skate the perimeter of melodrama. Aminata’s incredible story glides right to the edge—her feline ability to survive tugs at the unbelievable—but ultimately the missteps are not important. With Someone Knows My Name, Hill appears less interested in making a grand literary gesture than in telling a good story. In that way, he is much like his narrator, who on her journey back to her African village becomes “the storyteller—the djeli—that I had always hoped to be.” With grace and compassion, Hill populates true and harrowing experience with an authentic hero—just as good historical fiction requires.
Jenifer Berman works at the New Yorker and is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.