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By Derek Weiler
March 6, 2009
12:02 PM

Filed under News

The Book of Negroes wins Canada Reads

Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada) got another big boost today: the 2007 novel has won this year’s Canada Reads.

Hill’s book, the saga of a slave in the 1700s, was named the winner of the annual CBC Radio competition Friday morning, beating out the runner-up, Brian Francis’s debut novel Fruit (ECW Press). A Canada Reads win typically represents a major a sales boost, possibly tens of thousands of copies.

The Book of Negroes has already been a top seller over the past two years; HarperCollins vice-president and publisher Iris Tupholme says around 200,000 copies are in print, with another reprint in the works. “The book’s had a very strange flight path,” says Hill. “It started modestly and it just sort of grew and grew and grew.… Usually, when a book comes out, if it’s not knocking people’s socks off in the first few months, bookstores start sending it back.” Asked about how many likely buyers are still out there in the Canadian market, Tupholme is bold: “We’re not even halfway there.”

Hill, for his part, is hoping the win will get the book onto more school curricula. “Schools are woefully behind in literature having to do with the black experience,” he says. He cites the high school experiences of his two older children in Burlington, Ontario: they were assigned a single book on racial themes, To Kill a Mockingbird, on four different occasions. “Canadian educators still look to a safe old American book.”

HarperCollins reissued Hill’s second novel, 1997’s Any Known Blood, last year, while Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press still holds the rights to his 1992 debut, Some Great Thing. When an author moves from a small press to a large firm, the latter will often buy rights to earlier books, but neither Tupholme nor Turnstone managing editor Todd Besant would comment on whether HarperCollins has approached Turnstone about Some Great Thing.

Meanwhile, Hill is about a third of the way through his next manuscript, scheduled to go to Tupholme in 10 months. The story of an African refugee living illegally in a developed nation, it’s a contemporary novel with “an overtly comic edge,” says Hill. “It feels nice to just break free and be playful again.”

Besides Fruit, The Book of Negroes outlasted three other books in the Canada Reads joust. David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children (Doubleday Canada), championed by singer Sarah Slean, was voted off first, followed by Michel Tremblay’s The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (Talonbooks), championed by Quebec TV host Anne-Marie Withenshaw, and Gil Adamson’s Outlander (House of Anansi Press), championed by actor Nicholas Campbell. Fruit’s defender was novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, while broadcaster Avi Lewis advocated for The Book of Negroes.

CBC is promoting its winner with a month-long “online book club” devoted to The Book of Negroes, featuring videos, blogs, and discussion forums. HarperCollins, meanwhile, has donated 200 copies of the book to Canadian libraries through Canada Reads, and has announced plans to donate an (as yet undetermined) portion of future sales to the National Indigenous Literacy Association.

Hill was informed in advance of his win, but has been listening to the often-freewheeling radio debates this week. “I haven’t heard anything that I would categorize as offensive or mean-spirited to date,” he said Thursday. “I thought I might be a little more shaken up by it than I have been.”

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