By Lisa J. Long
Sunday, May 22, 2011.
the result of a painstaking thirteen year search for the authors
ancestral history. As described by Crooks in the fascinating afterward
to the novel, his persistence in the almost impossible task of tracing
ancestral routes through slave history turned to an all encompassing
passion. Crooks was successful in piecing together his fragmented
ancestral history and has constructed a family tree dating back to the
birth of Ami Djaba in West Africa in 1777. Using the real names of his
ancestors, Crooks’ novel is the story of what he imagines they suffered
during their lifetime spent on a slave plantation in Jamaica and traces
their possible stories over a forty year period from his great –great-
great grandfathers capture as a boy in Africa to emancipation in
Jamaica in 1838.
novel begins in August 1798, Crook’s protagonist, a boy squeezed
between strangers on a dark and stench ridden slave ship bound for
Jamaica develops a mother –son relationship with Ami. The two seek
comfort in each other on the miserable and torturous journey, a journey
which only two of the three hundred on board survive. Ami and the boy
are separated when they arrive in Jamaica and are sold to work on
different plantations but the boy, renamed August, never gives up hope
that one day they will be reunited.
narrative follows August through his adolescence as he learns how to
live as a slave on Crooks Cove plantation. Taken under the wing of
another mother figure August learns the language of the slaves, how to
work and how to survive by obedience. He never forgets Ami and they are
reunited when she is put to work at Crooks Cove several years later
with her Mulatto daughter Sarah Brown, born out of rape, free from
slavery as the daughter of a slave master but tied to a slave life
through her mother.
August progresses through adulthood and with a family of his own,
thoughts of freedom dominate his mind. His life becomes a long and
frustrating journey of false promises, dashed hopes and failed
rebellions. Crooks has created strong characters and the women in
particular stand out as the backbone of the plantation, maintaining
some of the traditional customs, and ultimately suffering through and
for the men. Through the stories of the women Crooks uncovers the
brutality of slavery describing in unflinching detail the beatings and
punishments often leading to death, the rape of slave women by the
‘massa’s’ and surprisingly the often admired maroons role in returning
runaways to the plantations.
strong theme throughout Crooks’ narrative is the complicity of the
church in slavery. Reverend Rose a white missionary is a constant
presence in the life of the plantation, with an almost apologetic
kindness he develops a fondness for August and teaches him to read,
provides him with the weekly newspaper and welcomes slaves into his
congregation. The slaves are forbidden from attending sermons by the
black pastor Daddy Sharpe as he preaches defiance encouraging rebellion
through his sermons and songs ‘we will be slaves no more, since Christ
has made us free, he has nailed our tyrants to the cross and bought our
liberty’. Rose is a force for calm amongst the slaves discouraging
dissent and encouraging patience and prayer as well as discouraging
traditional religious practices.
has created a pitiable character who does not have the courage of his
convictions and uses the bible to justify suffering. This character is
used to great effect, embodying the collusion of the church with the
system in manipulating slaves into submission.
brings to life the disappointments and failures to secure freedom so
tentatively that it becomes too much for the reader to bear and it as
much a relief for the reader as it is for August when emancipation is
granted. Crooks is clearly knowledgeable and desperate to impart as
much of this to the reader, however this can be a distraction from the
story and interrupts the flow of the narrative in places.
includes a four page chapter which abruptly moves the novel from
Jamaica to the House of Commons, England. A dozing William Wilberforce
leaves the room as Prime Minister Canning and Lord Buxton debate their
respective arguments for and against slavery. This chapter was
disconnected from the story and such attempts to impart knowledge
within the flow of the narrative made it difficult to stay engaged with
it being a little overcrowded with fact this is a moving narrative,
rich in historical knowledge. What shines through the narrative is
Crooks’ need to share the past and bring to life the connection between
Diaspora and ancestors so that others may find the connection that has
brought him fulfilment. Crooks determination is an inspiration for
anybody hoping to uncover an ancestral past and the work is certainly a
labour of love.
Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.
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