Someone Knows My Name – Book Review

SomeoneKnowsMyNameHe repeated my name over and over, and then added, “I must hear you say it. Please. Say it. Say my name.”

“Chekura,” I said.

“Someone knows my name. Seeing you makes me want to live.”

I wondered if there was a way for me to bring him water. “Now we must all live,” I said. – from Someone Knows My Name, page 66 –

Aminata is only eleven years old when she is kidnapped by slave traders and forced to march to the Atlantic ocean, miles from her small village, to be branded, sold and put on a slave ship to South Carolina. Aminata has been trained by her mother as a midwife to “catch babies” and has also had some education…both skills which help her to survive. Thus begins Lawrence Hill’s engrossing slave narrative Someone Knows My Name (known as The Book of Negroes outside of the United States). The novel spans a period of more than forty years and is narrated in the voice of Aminata (aka: Meena) who describes her life aboard a slave ship, living on an indigo plantation in South Carolina, as an escaped slave in New York, and later as an immigrant to Nova Scotia when the British government moved thousands of blacks there with promises of freedom. Aminata eventually returns “home” to Africa – specifically to Sierra Leone, later called Freetown. But her journey does not end there. As a literate black woman who has survived the most unimaginable terror and treatment, she agrees to go to London to work with the abolitionists trying to outlaw the slave trade.

Aminata’s story is horrific. Hill spares no details of the cruel treatment of slaves aboard the slave ships or at the hands of white plantation owners. The reader experiences the grief of women who lost their children to slavery…often before the age of two years old; the terror of rape and abuse; the longing to be free. In many ways, this is a difficult novel to read.

Near the platform stood a group of Africans, some barely able to stand and others with pus dripping from  sores on their legs. Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death. I felt my stomach churning, my throat tightening. I looked down to avoid meeting their eyes. I was fed, and they were not. I had clothes, and they had none. I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future. – from Someone Knows My Name, page 189 –

Hill’s research and the historical background of the novel is impecable. He explains in an afterword:

In terms of the sheer number of people recorded and described, the actual Book of Negroes is the largest single document about black people in North America up until the end of the eighteenth century. It contains the names and details of 3,000 black men, women and children, who, after serving or living behind British lines during the American Revolutionary War, sailed from New York City to various British colonies. – page 471 –

In Aminata, Hill gives a voice to the thousands of blacks who were enslaved in the latter part of the eighteenth century and in this way, the novel becomes more than just an historical document, but instead becomes a personal story of one woman’s courage and determination. Hill’s novel is really a family saga immersed in an historical time period.

I cannot say I enjoyed this book – but I feel I am a better person for having read it. Hill’s narrative is well written and stunning. Aminata’s story is one which we should not forget.

Highly recommended.


Someone Knows My Name won the Comonwealth Writers Prize in 2008.

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    • diane on August 14, 2009 at 09:29

    Great review, but I do not think I could read this one personally.

    • Kathy on August 14, 2009 at 10:10

    Wow, that sounds like a powerful story. Great review.

    • Sheri on August 14, 2009 at 11:32

    That’s a great rating!

    You’ve peaked my interest!


    • Jeane on August 14, 2009 at 13:26

    Wow. It sounds gut-wrenching. I have a copy of this book, but under the other title. I think I like Someone Knows My Name better.

    • Ali on August 14, 2009 at 16:27

    Those quotes are so beautiful. If the whole book is like that, I’m going to have to read it.

  1. So why do you think they changed the name from The Book of Negroes to Someone Knows My Name in the US? Is it for the same reason they didn’t put a “black” person on the cover of Liar, or because the latter is more PC here?

  2. I know what you mean about books that aren’t fun to read but you feel like you NEED to read them. This books sounds like that.

  3. I’m somewhere in the middle of a very long waiting list for this at the library, which is a good thing because it sounds as if it’s a novel that as be read by as many people as possible.

  4. This sounds like an amazing book. I’m definitely adding it to my TBR pile!

    • Gavin on August 15, 2009 at 15:38

    Wendy – Great review. It is a very hard book to read but well worth it.

  5. What a great review. I always have trouble rating books like this – what’s a good way to say “wonderful but terrible”!!! Your review did a remarkable job of conveying this, however!

    • Wendy on August 15, 2009 at 19:33

    Diane: It is one tough book – there were times (especially early on when Aminata was first captured by the slave traders) where I struggled to get through the descriptions – I actually laid the book down a couple of times just to catch my breath.

    Kathy: Thanks – yes, it is a powerful book…a reminder of where we’ve been and why we should never go back there again.

    Sheri: It is a must read – in my opinion, of course!

    Jeane: The original title is pretty appropriate as you’ll see when you read the book; but I ultimately liked this title better as I thought it captured more the essence of the book – the human face/voice behind the history.

    Ali: The whole book is like that. I think I tagged about 20 passages while reading and could have done more.

    Heidenkind: I think the publishers felt that the original title would turn Americans away from the book because of the word Negroes. The truth is that there really was a Book of Negroes…and I think the publishers didn’t give Americans the benefit of the doubt – I think most people would have still picked up the book. I don’t think the title would have hurt sales one iota…but my guess is that is why it got changed – because someone thought it would.

    Jenners: Exactly – not a fun book at all…but the message is an important one.

    Anne: I think people should read the book – I think it is important to remember history – even the horrible parts of it.

    Michelle: I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Gavin: Thanks – I agree…

    Rhapsody: Yes, rating a book like this is tough for me too…thanks for the kudos 🙂

    • Lisa on August 15, 2009 at 22:03

    Very powerful! Sounds like a must-read no matter how unpleasant the subject matter.

    • Teddy on August 16, 2009 at 20:55

    Wonderful review Wendy! This book is on my TBR!

  6. Wow. Sounds amazing. I will look out for it, thanks for the heads-up regarding the different title!

    • Wendy on August 17, 2009 at 14:55

    Lisa: It is powerful – and I think sometimes despite feeling uncomfortable, books like these are important.

    Teddy: Thanks! I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts!

    Michelle: I actually didn’t realize there was a different title until people in one of my book groups mentioned it – and it created quite a discussion!

  7. This sounds like a powerful story and one I would like to read. I like stories that move me. Thanks for the review.

    • Wendy on August 25, 2009 at 06:54

    Rebecca: I hope you’ll get a chance to read this one someday…it is a very powerful read and I guarantee it will move you!

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