Book Review: The Bondwoman’s Narrative
Book Reviewed by Paige Turner
In the 1850s a female slave owned by John Wheeler, a North Carolina plantation owner and minor government official, escaped and fled to freedom. She eventually resettled in New Jersey where she wrote a fictionalized account of her life, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, under the name of "Hannah Crafts." This unpublished novel remained in obscurity until Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates discovered the manuscript at an auction in 2001. Two literary investigators have authenticated the book as the earliest known novel by an African American woman.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative is the "serious book" sensation of the spring season and is being given vast marketing support by its publisher. A search for Hannah Crafts' relatives was recently announced in newspapers. Much of the book's perceived merit stems from its association with the august Dr. Gates.
While The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an historically important discovery it may not be satisfying to contemporary reading tastes. It juxtaposes melodrama with the hardships of slavery in a way that is off-putting and trivializing to the cruel and harsh lives most slaves endured. In one chapter readers will be awed by Hannah's courage in claiming her freedom, while in the next they may be disgusted with her quick subservience toward any white-ish looking person who is kind to her. Upon learning that her master is coming to reclaim her Hannah states to Mrs. Henry, a white caretaker.
"Mrs. Henry, you can save me from this. I have an inexpressible desire to stay with you. Your are so good, accomplished and Christian-like, could I only have the happiness to be your slave, your servant’ let me kneel here at your feet till you promise to pity and save me."
Many readers may find these extremes in attitudes to be a little too much wear and tear for a brief two-chapter journey.
This roller coaster ride among different perspectives and genres is jarring. Being able to enjoy a satire requires a certain frame of mind. Savoring a sentimental melodrama requires a different frame of mind, and a reading a gothic drama requires another mindset entirely. A reader's wonder of "Gee, isn't it great that this escaped slave had the self-determination to write a novel!" wears thin when they are investing six-plus hours in 300 pages of an ineptly written book. The wonder is quickly replaced by questions of "Where is this going?" and "Let's get this over with!" due to the book's strange concoction of literary styles.
The novel begins with the tense repercussions surrounding Hannah's becoming literate. Kindly whites on a nearby property teach the young slave how to read and write, but when this heinous act is discovered they are drummed out of town. Inexplicably Hannah's literacy seems to afford her a realm of protection above and beyond reading and writing. Hannah doesn't write with what might be interpreted as the sensibility of a slave. While she is described as very fair skinned and attractive she never experiences the sexual abuse typically meted out to most female slaves. (One long digressive chapter discusses the strife between a white husband and wife due to his affection for his female slaves and their offspring.)
Part of The Bondwoman’s Narrative describes the arrival of a new mistress at Hannah's plantation who comes with an easily guess-able secret. Hannah declares an instant loyalty to this lady. But after a series of harrowing misadventures she finds herself working as a maid to the languid Mrs. Wheeler. With this new position the novel delves into comedy. Her conversations with Mrs. Wheeler seem like a television sitcom with Hannah always having a crackerjack response and the last word to one-up her hapless mistress (if only in her own mind). Shades of Hazel, Nanny and Benson! Her new mistress commands Hannah to comb out her tangled hair.
"Be careful" she exclaimed. 'My hair, I expect, is excessively tangled, as it hasn't been combed for more than a week."
Master-Servant hijincks continue aplenty when Hannah gives Mrs. Wheeler a face powder that accidentally turns her face black.
Some of the most interesting parts of the novel describe the mentality of being a house slave versus a field slave. Color consciousness and white skin privilege also figure prominently. But while The Bondwoman’s Narrative may be an important find historically and in other ways, it possesses little commercial or literary value. If readers are looking for action-adventure, romances, histories, books on slavery or gothic thrillers there are thousands of books by African Americans and other writers that are far more satisfying, rich and worthwhile, and provide a more genuine insight into the human condition and man's inhumanity to man.
What is interesting is to imagine the real story surrounding Hannah Crafts, how she obtained her freedom, her growth as a writer, and how she enlarged her consciousness from one of a slave to a self-determining person. Unfortunately the Hannah Crafts displayed in The Bondwoman’s Narrative shows no growth or change. Her character starts out as quick-witted with a ready response, literate and even slightly smug toward her owners and field slaves. Her piety meter is set on full throttle and remains stuck there.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an exciting and important historical find, important to black, women's and American history. But worthwhile, satisfying, absorbing fare for lovers of good reading it is not. Authentic? Yes. Worthwhile? Maybe. Exciting? Debatable. Funny? Unintentionally. Interesting? No, dear reader. Alas, no.
On April 2, 2002, Warner Books published The Bondwoman’s Narrative a work already being hailed as an historical literary landmark. Discovered by Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it is the first known novel written by an African American woman who had been a slave. The buzz about this magnificent discovery began with The New York Times front page article on November 11, 2001 and intensified when an excerpt appeared in the February 18 & 25, 2002 issue of The New Yorker.
The novel first came to the attention of Gates in February of 2001 when he bid on an ’Unpublished Original Manuscript’ offered by Swann Galleries described as ’a fictionalized biography’purporting to be the story, of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts, a mulatto, born in Virginia.’
The novel is told in the voice of Hannah Crafts and reveals first-hand knowledge of the intimacies shared between ladies' maids and their mistresses, the secrets they were entrusted with, and the cruel imposition of a master’s attention. Crafts relays the life of the slave as property without any rights, living in complete bondage and takes the reader back to a time when a black person's worth was determined only by the monetary value they could be acquired for.