Hannah Crafts,
The Bondwoman's Narrative
(Time Warner, 2002)

The Bondwoman's Narrative is a remarkable novel written in the 1850s by a former slave, Hannah Crafts, discovered as a bound, handwritten narrative by editor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Written in the style of the 19th-century "sentimental novel," The Bondwoman's Narrative tells the story of Hannah, a slave who undergoes a series of harrowing adventures on her way to freedom. Raised to be a house slave, she is educated (illegally) by a kindly couple living on her master's plantation; when discovered, they pay a price for their kindness. Hannah is articulate and observant, fervent in her faith and humble in demeanor.

Hannah's master brings home a bride who is in turn accompanied by a curious acquaintance, the lawyer Mr. Trapp. Hannah becomes the new mistress's personal maid, and she soon discerns that Mr. Trapp holds a devastating secret over the distraught woman's head. In an effort to save the mistress to whom she is by now devoted, Hannah agrees to run away to the north with her. But almost immediately their plans go awry. They lose their way and are forced to take shelter for months in an old deserted cabin. Upon their discovery, they are taken into captivity, and Hannah is forever separated from her dear mistress.

Hannah's adventures continue, some trying, some hair-raising -- in fact, traveling with Hannah could be viewed as being hazardous to one's health -- but she perseveres in her dream to go north to freedom.

The "sentimental" style allows Hannah to engage in discourses on slavery, equality and other related issues, even if at times the narrative is overwrought and melodramatic. Hannah is a complex character; beneath her humble mien is a spark of willfulness that feeds her determination to keep going. Her story is immediate and compelling, and Crafts ably demonstrates a gift for character and storytelling.

Anna Deveare Smith's reading is not as polished as the narrators of some of the recorded books to which I have listened. Her voice is breathy and her pacing seems off a bit, rushed in placed and flat in others. However, once I had listened for a short while, Smith's voice become inextricably linked in my mind with Hannah; in essence, Smith became Hannah, and I could imagine no other voice reading the narrative.

Editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. introduces the recording with the story of how he acquired the manuscript and closes it with the story of authenticating the book. His warm-voiced enthusiasm in infectious, and I was a bit sad when the tape was over. I wanted more.

Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative is a riveting slice of history told from a purely personal perspective as well as an engaging listening experience.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 23 November 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.