Someone Knows My Name

875441I read Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name almost by accident. I borrowed the book last summer, only because the name sounded familiar. What a happy accident that was! I have since gifted the book to my mom—together with a box of tissues—and made the more voracious readers of my book club read it. I rank this book up there with The Color Purple, and that is, in fact, my sales pitch: If you have read and appreciated The Color Purple, pick up Someone Knows My Name immediately.

875436The novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo, who as a nine-year-old is abducted and sold to slave traders in Africa. After a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic, she ends up on an indigo plantation in South Carolina. She is lucky insofar as that her mother taught her about midwifery and she can quickly learn a new language. Her life takes a turn for the worse when both her and her son are sold to different new owners, and while she manages to reunite with her husband, she is not able to find out what happened to her child. The Revolutionary War offers her a way to freedom; in New York, she works for the British and helps pen the Book of Negroes, which is a list of black people who receive safe passage to Nova Scotia as a reward for helping the British. Hopes for a better life there are dashed when the emigrants are met with prejudice and poor living conditions. On top of that, Aminata is once again betrayed by a white family she considered her friends. With nothing to lose, she volunteers in moving a great number of African Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone. She hopes that this will give her the chance to find her way back to her native village. Yet her dreams do not materialize, and eventually, Aminata finds herself in London, aiding abolitionists there by teaching the British about the cruelty of slavery.

As you can see from this summary, Aminata lives a full life. It might seem a bit incredible that she should cross the oceans not once, but three times in her lifetime, but it did not feel incredible while reading about her. Aminata came to life for me in this book, and it speaks to the power of this book that I still think frequently about her, even though it’s been months since I listened to the book. (It is narrated by Adenrele Ojo, who does an excellent job.)          

17664284Aside from reading about and agonizing with a strong woman like Aminata, I loved the historical aspect of the novel. I never gave much thought about what happened to the runaway slaves or free black people who worked for the British during the Revolutionary War once the British left. Until last year, I had no idea that there was a colony of free black people in Nova Scotia. And I still know way too little about the idea and effort to establish colonies in Africa for people who came from there to begin with.

18295781A very different aspect that still fascinates me is the completely different title this book has depending on the where it is being sold. In the US, it is published as Someone Knows My Name, the title I preferred until I found out that the Book of Negroes is an actual “thing.” Then I preferred the Canadian title: The Book of Negroes. And then I read an essay about the importance of a person’s name—and the importance of who names us (e.g., parents vs. slave owners)—and was back to preferring the US title. And isn’t it fascinating that the German title translates to “I Have a Name” and that the French edition is simply called “Aminata”? Well, I could go on and on here, but that might stop you from reading the book. And that I definitely don’t want to do. Go and read the book.



  1. In the UK it’s also called The Book of Negroes, but the TV adaptation was called Someone Knows My Name. But apparently the US title for the TV adaptation was The Book of Negroes…? Correct me if I’m wrong!

  2. This sounds wonderful. I’ve heard of this book before, but I didn’t realize it dealt with the whole situation of sending freed slaves to Sierra Leone. I’m really interested in that period! Did you ever read Simon Schama’s book about this? It’s called Rough Crossings and it’s excellent.

    • That part makes up only about a quarter of the book, but it’s certainly interesting. I had thought the attempt to send former slaves back to Africa was a purely American effort; I didn’t know it happened in Canadian history as well. Thanks for the book recommendation; I will certainly check out Rough Crossings.

  3. Nice review. Yes I loved The Color Purple and I should read this one as well. It seems like a momentous book. Since I live in Canada now, I have to. Interesting about all the various titles for the novel. No wonder I was confused at first.

    • The very different titles had me confused as well! I hope you will get around to reading it; it’s a great book! I wish we could have visited the museum in Nova Scotia that chronicled this part of Canadian history when we were there, but we ran out of time.

  4. The Book of Negroes has been recommended to me so many times – will 2017 finally be the year I read it?! So interesting how titles and book covers differ depending on where and who publishes the edition. One of my favorite books, The Memory of Love by Aminata Forna, has the same cover image as the French edition of Lawrence Hill’s book!

    • I hope you will get to read this book in 2017! It is such a strong book. I recognized the lady on the French edition as well from The Memory of Love, which is a book high on my TBR. I think the fact that Forna has the same first name as the main character in Someone Knows My Name is a strong hint that *I* should read The Memory of Love in 2017!

  5. Sounds fascinating! I had no idea about Nova Scotia either, nor Sierra Leone, though I knew that Liberia was set up for freed slaves. It’s incredible how much history we don’t know – how selective our educations were in what history we were taught. I hope it’s different now…

    • One reason to love historical fiction: to fill the gaps our educations have left. Some major college here in the US just announced that a course in US history is no longer a requirement for graduation, so while I wish things were different now, the gaps might only get bigger… 😦

  6. Great review, TJ! And I’m so glad you liked it – it’s one of my favourites.
    I have also found the different titles for the book interesting, but prefer the Canadian title – probably because that’s the one I’m used to.

    My sister’s most recent (past) boyfriend is from Sierra Leone, but has lived in the US and (now) Nova Scotia for many years now. He had no idea the connections between Sierra Leone and NS (until she happily filled him in!).

    • Definitely one of my new favorites as well! Another book I probably would not have discovered without blogging. I keep thinking about how momentous the decision to move to Nova Scotia was for so many people at the time, and today it barely takes up one line in a history book (if you pick the right book)…

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