The BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE is a valuable historical document that
reveals the sad, humiliating, fearful and painful lives of slaves
who suffered untold indignities inflicted by their cruel,
indifferent owners. The fact that it offers a glimpse into a
shameful part of American history by a voice never before heard
makes for an unforgettable reading experience.
The lives of slaves were at the mercy of their masters, who had
snatched away all their rights --- their freedom, their thoughts,
and indeed, their lives. They were 'properties' to be traded,
exchanged, sold or disposed of, almost always separated from their
families, as if they weren't human souls.
The voice of the narrator --- a humble, sensitive, perceptive and
self-educated female fugitive slave --- reveals an awareness, a
sense of morality, and a deep understanding of human nature far
superior to some of the owners. Hannah's story, recorded in a
handwritten unpublished manuscript --- perhaps part reality and
part fiction --- borrows heavily from the Bible as well as gothic
and romantic literature.
She begins her story quoting the "Song of Solomon" from The King
James Bible, "Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun
hath looked upon me…"
The opening chapter of the novel unfolds with Hannah acknowledging
her doubts about undertaking this feat of writing a story. "It may
be that I assume too much responsibility in attempting to write
these pages. The world will probably say so, and I am aware of my
deficiencies. I am neither clever, nor learned, nor talented, but
[has] a rather silent unobtrusive way of observing things and
events and wishing to understand them better."
Apart from being serene and practical, Hannah is unusually
perceptive and smart. "The life of a slave at best is not a
pleasant one but I had formed a resolution to always look on the
bright side of things, to be industrious, cheerful, true-hearted,
to do some good though in a humble way and win some love if I
could." And considering the fact that Hannah is isolated from being
a member of the 'genteel class,' her behavior is always proper and
upright. Perhaps that's why she attracts kindness and friendship
from those she meets on her journey.
There's the elderly couple, who live on her master's grounds and
open their home and hearts to her, teaching her to read and write
and exposing her to the Bible. There's the plantation's beautiful
new mistress with a devastating secret, who decides to flee her
home and take Hannah with her. Their odyssey is of a life on the
lam, chased by slave hunters and another powerful, determined enemy
at their heels.
Her beautiful mistress dies under the brutal hardships they endure,
but Hannah recovers after a long period spent with another kind
family and is finally sent away to be a slave to a whimsical,
shallow woman whose former ladymaid, jealous of Hannah's position,
poisons the mistress's heart against her. Hannah is forced to flee
after her mistress spitefully decides she is to marry an older,
uncouth, vulgar slave who works in the fields. Unable to bear the
injustice, she escapes.
Through the tumultuous years of excruciating hard labor,
ill-treatments, cruelties and grief, Hannah retains her sanity, her
integrity, her courage, her hopes, and her resolution of seeing the
positive. When she escapes, we cheer --- for her and for the
triumph of the human spirit --- and when she begins a life of peace
and freedom, it is as if she has won first place in a tough
marathon where the odds had been heavily stacked against her.
If it weren't for a professor of Humanities at Harvard University,
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the book THE BONDWOMAN'S NARRATIVE would
never have been discovered or published. He was intrigued by an
antique auction catalogue entry that described a fictional novel,
handwritten by a fugitive female slave, called "Hannah Crafts." He
began the process of authenticating the manuscript, which entailed
"lining up" the events, times, and places in the text and comparing
them to known historical facts.
With the assistance of librarians at the Library of Congress and
the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, among others, Gates spearheaded an extensive
research effort. Homebound because of hip replacement surgery,
Gates sifted through censuses, attempting to establish the actual
existence of characters within the novel. When he finally found one
real character, he cried. Despite the challenges, Gates eventually
succeeded in authenticating the origin of the work but he never
could locate the real Hannah Crafts.
This is an unforgettable book about an unforgettable woman who
dared to take a stand and change her life. It's inspiring,
uplifting and a must-read for all who ever wondered how slaves
viewed the world around them.
Reviewed by Sonia Chopra (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011