“Do you hate me?” he asked.
“Might you not hate all white men indiscriminately? You would have good reason.”
I poured myself more water from the carafe. “If I spent my time hating, my emotions would have been spent long ago, and I would be nothing more than an empty cowrie shell.”
This historical fiction novel is the story of Aminata Diallo, a young girl stolen from her African village and sold into slavery.
The story follows ‘Meena’ through her life under a brutal slave master on an indigo plantation in South Carolina, where she learns to read. After she is sold, she learns how to keep accounts and handle money under a Jewish master in Charles Town. After Meena discovers her new master had been instrumental in the sale of her son, she takes advantage of the chaos during the start of the Revolutionary war and escapes.
The novel is hard to put down as Meena learns to survive and provide for herself among the harshest of living conditions. When the war ends Meena takes refuge in Canada and from there is able to travel, back to Africa, and ultimately to England.
“Sometimes, late at night when I had trouble sleeping, I would lug a bucket of water up to the woods. I would find a quiet spot under the trees and the stars, and stare up at the same drinking gourd I had admired as a child. In the cool night air I would enjoy splashing the warm water on my skin and wonder, sometimes, if anybody from Bayo had survived on the night I was stolen.”
Harsh, brutal, incredibly gut-wrenching are only some of the terms I can think of to describe the author’s depiction of the slave trade in the late 1700’s, but there are also many instances of determination, resilience, courage, and steadfast endurance. I have to admit that this is not a light, pleasant read, and occasionally I found myself putting the book aside for a breather. The story is so well told and Aminata’s plight so engaging, I was always drawn back to reading more.
That Aminata (nicknamed “Meena” by those who cannot pronounce her name) is intelligent and resourceful is pretty obvious to the reader and she takes many folk by surprise, both white and black, by her talents both as a midwife (she had accompanied her mother on several births among the neighboring African villages), her educated speech and her literacy.
Readers will be happy to discover one event that brings a happy ending for Meena but I will not take the opportunity to spoil it for those who have not yet read the book. There was much here I had never learned in history, and the plot much more involved than I will attempt to describe here. I was sad to read about the failure of the British to keep their promise to free those slaves who fought for them during the Revolutionary War. Their additional empty promise of free land that resulted in the first black settlement in Nova Scotia, the living conditions described and the determination to gain freedom made this for me an un-putdown-able read. The connection with William Wilberforce made this book all the more appealing.
“The headman had many other questions. What did I mean by the statement that not all toubaba (white men) were devils, and how could it be possible to see good in some of them?
I replied with a question of my own: “Do you not know the human heart?”
The author admits in his afterword that Araminta is a character he created; however, (and tragically), many of the situations described here were factual.