Wake by Rebecca Hall: Book Review

Wake by Rebecca Hall Book Cover

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Wake by Rebecca Hall Book Cover
Title: Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
Content Warning: Slavery, Racism, Rape, Violence

My Synopsis:

Rebecca Hall decided to write her thesis on women-led slave revolts. She knew they happened but the historical record is incomplete and difficult to navigate. In this graphic memoir, she shares her struggle to find records and the history she was able to piece together.

My Review:

I honestly expected to find more hard facts in the book than I did. But Dr. Hall addresses that. Even when she found records of revolts led by women, they rarely contained more than a first name. So she decided to make “measured use of historical imagination” and fill in the gaps. That’s fair enough, especially since she’s very clear about what she found in the historical record and what she imagined.

Some records that she wanted to investigate are held by private companies (Lloyd’s of London used to insure slave ships against insurrection). They refused to give her access when they learned what her research topic was. Even public records were hard for her to access when they were stored in courthouses, behind security screening. She faced discrimination over and over.

But the history she pieces together is powerful. Slave ships that contained more women than men were more likely to have insurrections. She shares notes from captain’s logs about deaths, revolts, and the brutal way they treated their captives. She imagines what life was like as an enslaved woman and what would finally drive them to revolt. In short, she shares and imagines the unimaginable.

I have mixed feelings about Hugo Martínez’s illustrations. On the one hand, I felt the heavy shading/cross-hatching muddied the artwork and made it hard for me to get a good fix on what was going on. They almost felt like idea sketches instead of finished works. I’m not an artist so I don’t have the vocabulary to say what I mean. I’m a fast reader and don’t spend a lot of time really focusing on illustrations, so that could just be me. But the surprising ways that he finds to show that Dr. Hall is haunted by the past were ingenious.

I recommend this book for readers who want to learn more about the history of slavery and slave revolts and for those who seek to gain an appreciation for how difficult it is to research that history, both logistically and emotionally.

Recommended by:

Helen’s Book Blog

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  1. This sounds so good! I don’t typically like books that are a mix of nonfiction and fiction, but I loved Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, where the author explored the lives of Black women in the early twentieth century through a clear explanation of what was definitely know plus some beautifully written imaginings of how people might have felt. This book seems very similar, with both exploring topics that deserve consideration and can be hard to get it, given poor records kept about marginalized or enslaved people. Adding this to my to-read list.

  2. I am woefully behind in my blog reading! I am glad you liked this even though you were conflicted about parts. I was too but think it is full of such interesting stories and information that I didn’t know.

  3. I may try this on audio. I listened to a sample and there are over a dozen narrators, with multiple sound effects. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention, Jen!

  4. I also found this book fascinating. I’m still not sure I *like* the artwork… I appreciate what it’s doing, but it’s not really my preferred art style. That said, it’s not *for* me, and I think Martínez does what he needs to do with the art, which is more important than me liking it, honestly.

    When I read this, I had similar expectations as you mention about getting more facts and less conjecture. By the time I reached the end of the book, however, I wondered if the lack of information that Hall was able to get spoke even greater volumes about the intersection of racism and misogyny than the suppression of the women’s slave revolts she set out to research.

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