Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book Review: "The Great Negro Plot"

Novelist Mat Johnson tries his hand at non-fiction with The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York (Bloomsbury, 2007). It is a broad overview of the 1741 events in New York which led to the arrest of more than half the city's male slaves, the execution of more than thirty 'conspirators' (black and white) by hanging or burning at the stake, and the spread of a great conflagration of hysteria throughout the colonial city. With shades of Salem, the witch-hunt ended only when the main accuser, maid Mary Burton, began to accuse powerful people who were known to have played no role in the conspiracy.

Johnson has taken an unfortunate tack in his approach, however. It's clear that he's read the historical research into the conspiracy, but he's tried to make this book into a fiction/non-fiction mashup and it just didn't work for me. Presumably the dialogue he includes comes from contemporary documents, but he makes no note of the sources (his bibliography is fairly pitiful). There's no index at all, and very little in the way of background or context for the events he describes. For some, this might be acceptable; I found it frustrating.

Those interested in really learning about the 1741 conspiracy in New York would be better served by Jill Lepore's New York Burning; Johnson's work might whet the curiosity, but little more than that can be expected of it.