BookBrowse Reviews Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

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Someone Knows My Name

aka: The Book of Negroes

by Lawrence Hill

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2007, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2008, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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Hill exquisitely imagines the tale of an eighteenth-century woman's life, spanning six decades and three continents

The weight of one's name and who may speak it can not, perhaps, be fully understood in this present era of digital communication and social informality. But the proper name carried much significance in eighteenth century Europe: forms of address and etiquette of the name's use were part of a careful code of respect and hierarchy. Similarly, in Bayo, Africa, childhood home of Aminata Diallo, main character of Someone Knows My Name, one's name, rank and tribe carried great meaning. Such distinctions - individual heritage, familial spiritual beliefs, societal roles - begin to erode, however, the moment Aminata and several other villagers are stolen from their homes and families by slave traders and locked in naked, marching rows toward the sea. Thus, amidst horrible physical suffering, Aminata's interior battle begins: a constant tension between retaining the dignity of her own name and personhood and adjusting, for survival's sake, to the whims and mores of other lands. Through this weaving of opposites, author Lawrence Hill accomplishes a writing feat of admirable subtlety: illustrating the homogenizing influence of mutual suffering inside the theme of the distinguishing power of a name.

Someone Knows My Name is the story of a girl who becomes a woman, a wife, a mother, and a leader – all while under the ownership of white men. It is a novel that offers its readers not only a mesmeric heroine and expertly paced plot, but also a significant survey of the complexities of the pre- and post-American Revolution African slave trade. In this tale, the wrongs of human slavery spread across continents and people groups, perpetuated even by neighboring African villages and colonists who question the rightness of the practice. Progress, whether it be Aminata's or the British Abolitionists,' often depends on unholy alliances. As a result, the novel is a literary reminder of the pain caused by a culture's moral failures and the precarious fight to correct them.

Turning the pages of Hill's book is effortless in one sense and very difficult in another. Protagonist Aminata Diallo's desire for freedom is unquenchable, her drive inspiring and superhuman. The losses she experiences, however, are just as potent as her will. Brief joys of love and family are suffocated by mourning time and time again. Some scenes approach the threshold of heartache plausible for one soul to bear, requiring Hill to find or create a new purpose for Aminata's fight for life and freedom to continue. Most often, her rare literacy and gift for languages is her saving grace, offering a welcome nod to the power of reading and writing to change a life – or the direction of an entire nation.

Someone Knows My Name was originally published as The Book of Negroes in Canada, where it received wide praise. The pre and post-publication media in the USA were in general agreement, as were BookBrowse's members who voted it one of the top four books of 2007.

As always, each reader must judge the book's merits. This is a book that is definitely worth being given that chance. Despite the book's almost 500 pages, Hill has crafted a superbly focused narrative and has successfully blended the unforgettable story of an indomitable woman with little known, but important, historical events from Africa, America, Canada and England.


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About the Author: Lawrence Hill is the author of the novels Any Known Blood (1999), Some Great Thing (1992) and The Book of Negroes (2007) (Someone Knows My Name in USA) and the non-fiction works Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (2001); Women of Vision: The Story of the Canadian Women's Association (1996) and Trials and Triumphs: The Story of African-Canadians (1993). He also co-authored, with Joshua Key, The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq (2007), about former American soldier, Joshua Key's, experiences in Iraq that led him to desert after seven months and seek asylum in Canada.

Born in Toronto in 1957, Hill is the son of a black man and a white woman, American-born civil rights activists Daniel and Donna Hill. Hill came upon the idea for The Book of Negroes in a book he borrowed from his parents about 20 years ago. The Black Loyalists, written by historian James Walker and published in 1980, tells how black Americans settled in Nova Scotia after serving the British in the Revolutionary War.

He lives in Burlington, Ontario with his wife and five children.

Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie

This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the November 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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