The Bondwoman's Narrative details the life and eventual freedom of a young female slave. The story itself is quite good, but its publication is overshadowed by its historical significance and the search for the author's identity.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., who also provided its introduction, edits the book. Gates explains how he acquired an unpublished manuscript, suspected of being written by a female fugitive slave. If determined authentic, it would be the first novel written by a female slave and quite possibly the first written by an African-American woman.
The lengthy introduction describes the efforts to which Gates went to uncover this history of the manuscript. The narrative itself offered hints to the author's identity. Census records, diaries and documents were analyzed in an attempt to find the real Hannah Crafts. The editor posed several questions and each answer further validated the manuscript's authentication.
Though an official identification hasn't been made, the narrative reveals a great deal about its author. Obviously, Crafts was literate and she possessed remarkable writing talent. Her tale provides a vivid description of the experience of a house slave. Crafts voice is more genuine than more popular novels about the nation's slavery era. According to Gates:
"Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked toand aboutone another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought the should talk or wanted white readers to believe the talked. This is a voice we have rarely, if ever, heard before."
The Bondwoman's Narrative has been published verbatim from its original handwritten form, giving readers an eye-opening story, untouched by any editor's pen.
Based on the time frame and writing style, Gates considers this story to be of the gothic tradition often involving "ancient houses, forlorn brides and supernatural occurrences." Craft's work is similar to the style of Edgar Allan Poe, with comparisons and contrasts to Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other writers of the time.
From a reader's standpoint, The Bondwoman's Narrative is an eye-opening tale of slavery and freedom. Craft provides an intimate and honest view of the mistress/slave relationship. Though the pages are filled with fiction, savvy readers can clearly register Craft's personal experiences and observances within the plot. And for the not so savvy, Gates's own analysis clearly explains the significance of the manuscript.
Craft's story is truly fascinating, even without the scrutiny. The experts have deemed the story authentic, providing a narrow time frame for its creation. That leaves only one question: who was Hannah Crafts? It's a shame her identity is not known. Her work of fiction is significant, but there's no doubt her own life story is more fascinating.
The Bondwoman's Narrative is a satisfying reading experience, an important history lesson and groundbreaking literary event all rolled into one. Crafts voice has been uncovered, shedding new light on a dark subject. Her tale is a historical document that shouldn't be missed.