Aminata Diallo, called Meena, is born in mid-eighteenth-century Africa and leads a happy life with her Muslim parents. Her mother is a midwife and is teaching Meena her skills. But ruthless white men appear, killing her parents and imprisoning her. The eleven year-old girl is forced to march miles and miles to the sea. During the journey she makes friends with Chekura, a slightly older boy who seems to be employed by the white captors, but like Meena, has also been captured. They are kept at a fort, then herded on to ships and taken on an agonizing journey across the ocean.

Meena and Chekura are sold as slaves. They lose sight of each other and live on plantations in privation and squalor never knowing if they will be treated with kindness or cruelty. Meena is raped by an owner. She learns how to read and write English quickly (although her skill must be kept secret), and she is fascinated by maps, constantly plotting to return to Africa.

Meena and Chekura find each other and marry secretly - but soon they are separated. She has a baby girl. Her literary and midwifery skills are her salvation, and eventually she is sold to a Jewish duty inspector. He and his wife treat her well, and she and her child live in comfort, but the revolutionary war disrupts their world. Meena returns home one day to find that the Jewish couple have fled on ship to England, taking her daughter with them..."for her own good."

Meena moves to New York City, taking a room in a hotel and still intent on finding a way back to Africa. She writes the names and ages of the people clamoring to go to Nova Scotia as a reward for serving the British in the Revolutionary War: the original "book of negroes." The settlers arrive with hope and optimism, but they encounter more oppressions. Later she is lured by the attractive plan to build "Freetown" in Sierra Leone; again however, the promised resources never materialize and the fledgling community degenerates into crime and misery. Even Meena's attempt to find her original home is thwarted.

In 1802 London, as a frail elderly woman, the abolitionists treat Meena with reverence and curiosity. They encourage her to write her story, and there she finds her daughter again.


A tour de force, this great novel recreates the life of a slave with sensitivity, plausibility, and power, immersing the reader in the constant apprehension that tracked the lives of slaves.An ominous sense of dread hangs over every page; even happy events and gentleness are pervaded with doom, because they all vanish or transform into brutality. The careful attention to historical and geographical detail make the story a compelling invitation to learn more.

The "Book of Negroes," which inspired the novel, is an actual document of 3000 names, copies of which are held in archives and libraries.



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