Review: Canada gives a chilly reception in The Book of Negroes

Canada gets her starring turn in the fifth episode of The Book of Negroes, and she’s not ready for her closeup.

Nova Scotia was, at the time of the novel and mini-series events, part of the British Empire and where some United Empire Loyalists settled, including those who were named in the historical book of Negroes. In our fictional world, Aminata lands to find the promised land is instead an inhospitable land, in climate and in temperament.

The new arrivals are cold to the point of taking a coat from a dead man, hungry enough that a dog is led off-screen by a man with an ax, crowded enough that cholera runs through the makeshift Birchtown, where the black inhabitants are segregated, waiting for the land they were promised.

Aminata’s character is shown when she tries to return some potatoes dropped by a white couple, though she’s told to keep them by a woman who ends up nursing her back to health — but she loses her newborn son while still separated from Chekura, whose ship had landed elsewhere.

This episode deviates from the novel significantly, permanently shedding Aminata of a child and reuniting her with supposed-to-be-dead Chekura for the voyage to Sierra Leone. I’m neutral on such changes from the source material — different media have different storytelling needs and strengths — and I can see why they wanted the love story to form a through-line in the mini-series. I  occasionally feel as if the cohesion of the series suffers from the opposite: taking too many incidents from the novel and jaggedly gluing them together.

Louis Gossett, Jr. and Jane Alexander make memorable guest stars in this episode as something of a church and community elder in the former’s case, and something of a racist harpy in the latter’s.

The black residents are segregated and paid less for the same work — if they can find work — and so subject to slavery, indentured servitude or crippling debt.

Aminata remains their storyteller, writing the abolitionists in England for assistance. Her erudite letters earn her a job in the print shop of Maria Witherspoon (Alexander) where she witnesses that woman’s disdain for black people (though she magnanimously calls Aminata “one of the good ones”).

When Aminata is accosted by Witherspoon’s son, Jason kills him in the ensuing struggle, setting off the woman’s rage. The town is unhappy, to say the least, not just by the black presence, but by their ingratitude in making them look bad to the British.

Aminata’s old boss Clarkson (Ben Chaplin) arrives in response to her letters to offer the freed slaves a new promised land: Sierra Leone, where they need a community to stake their empire’s claim. He promises farm land where they can grow food and be free. Reminded that was the promise of Nova Scotia as well, Clarkson says “yeah, my bad.” OK that’s not an exact quote, but a number of the Birchtown residents, including Aminata, choose to believe again and return to the continent from which they were stolen.

Reunited with Chekura thanks to Clarkson — making him a bit too much her saviour in my eyes — the couple sail toward the new hope and the final episode.


3 thoughts on “Review: Canada gives a chilly reception in The Book of Negroes”

  1. This was a terrific episode. I cried a lot in this episode, especially when Aminata’s baby died. I loved the flashbacks to the first episode. This episode seemed very real. The show did a good job of showing how desperate life was for the Loyalists who were relocated to Nova Scotia. I really wish my local library had a copy of the novel so I could read it but alas they don’t. This miniseries format irks me a bit because I want to know more of the story and it feels like I’m only getting brief glimpses. With the book I could maybe get the details I’m craving but at the same time if the book and miniseries differ greatly it might make me like the book less because the miniseries is what I saw first.

  2. It’s funny, this was my least favorite, but really successful in making me want to watch the final ep.

    I feel the thing about the jagged elements, but what strikes me about this adaptation is how much it really makes we want to read the book. Most of the time when I watch a film/miniseries adaptation of a book, I have no desire to go back. You couldn’t pay me to read Game of Thrones, for example.

    But I think I’ll be picking up the book of this soon.

  3. I don’t think you’d be disappointed with the book Alicia – it does fill in gaps and smooth things out. I wouldn’t say they differ *greatly* either. Just some fine-tuning :)

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