Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr has had a busy few years authenticating the manuscript, The Bondwoman’s Narrative [Warner Books], an unusual and riveting tale purportedly authored by a fugitive slave in the late 1800’s. Written some 150 years ago and only just published for the first time, the book is filled with lavish, descriptive and often emotionally uncomfortable detail. The Bondwoman’s Narrative turns much about the world as we assumed it to be upside down, giving Hannah Crafts (the name of the author and the protagonist), a mulatto woman of her time a voice to tell the exciting story of escape from an abusive slave owner in a grand Virginia estate, self-education, "passing" in the world of the white man, and the creation of a new life.
Gates has preserved the look of the text he purchased at an auction, keeping crossed out words and corrections as the author made them. The spelling and grammar can be tough at times, but this lends further charm and excitement to the fact that this just may be the real thing. Descriptions of flora, fauna, and personal insights expressed are new to the average white American of today. For instance, what modern-day historian had ever given weight to the painful notion of never knowing one’s own birthdate?
Physical description is mingled with the metaphysical, and the language is alive, rich, and poetic beyond the exciting story. Hannah Crafts, or whoever wrote this story, sure did it well.
The story is supposed to be fiction, but many believe it’s a thinly-disguised autobiography of Crafts, and Gates continues to work verifying obscure little facts, names, and places mentioned (that, as he stumbles upon more facts and documentation, all seem to come up as historical fact). In fact, Gates' lengthy introduction on the authentication of the novel is an adventure unto itself. Altogether, The Bondwoman's Narrative is exciting detective work and a wonderful, intriguing read.