Jude and Diana by Sharon Robart-Johnson

A few years ago I read Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia by Sharon Robart-Johnson. In it, there was a short newspaper clipping about the murder trial of a young, enslaved girl named Jude who was beaten to death in the early 1800s. In Jude and Diana, Robart-Johnson gives voice to Jude and to her sister Diana. Their story is hard to read at times, but–as many readers have said over the years–if Jude and Diana could live it then the least I can do is read about it.

Jude and Diana’s stories are hard to read. Their lives were full of violence, physical, sexual and systemic. I wanted readers to understand the unjust pain in Jude’s life. But there is also love in their stories. I wanted to understand for myself that there could be joy in the life of an enslaved person as well.

Sharon Robart-Johnson

The book is divided up into three parts: Jude’s Story, The Murder Trial, and Diana’s Story. Jude tells us about her life as she lay dying on the Major and Missus’ living room floor, as family members and go in and out, peering in at her to see if she’s still alive. We learn that she hasn’t always lived with the major and Missus; that she’s a fighter and that she’s often getting into trouble because of it; that she’s the one who sneaks into the kitchen or garden at night to bring extra food to her hungry family; that she and Diana have parents who love them and whose hearts must break a little every minute their children remain enslaved.

I learned over my years, not much point to cryin’ ’bout bein’ a slave. We is gonna be that till we die.

The Missus is an intriguing character. I automatically pictured her as mean and nasty to everyone, but as the book went on I realized that she is two different people – cold and heartless towards her slaves, and stern but loving towards her children. Such a thing is hard for me to imagine. I guess that’s the way it was. Similarly, the Major believed that he was not guilty of anything because “She’s my property; I’ll do what I please.”

During the murder trial we get to know more about Israel and Mary; Israel is a distant neighbour who has been calling on Mary, the daughter of the house. They are both friendly to Jude and Diana.

Then he smiled at me. That smile it meaned the world to me. He wuzn’t lookin’ at me like I wuz mud on his boots or cow dung in the field.

Israel goes as far as reporting Jude’s death, knowing it was no accident, while Mary seems to be more like an ostrich with her head in the sand. In fact, for all her talk about how much she cares about Jude and Diana, she seems to be blind to the severity of their abuse. Is she afraid to get more involved, or is she in denial? A quote from Diana that matched my sentiments exactly: “I knowed she was tryin’ to help, but how could she be so stoopid?”

Diana’s narrative takes over after Jude’s death, trying to make sense of her life now that she’s alone. When they were young, Jude and Diana used to dream about finding a man and having children. Now that Jude is gone, Diana sees no reason left to live.

I miss Mamma and Papa, but most of all I miss my sister. Jude was always my pillar of strength, my rock. The one person who could make me laugh in this world of pain.

How things really ended for Diana 200 years ago will remain a mystery, but Robarts-Johnson doesn’t leave us without a little bit of hope. And there are lovely times spent with family peppered into the story for relief from the heartache.

I loves children. When they is small, before they is teached, they don’t know that I is brown an’ they is white.

The family who enslaved Jude tried to wipe her out, forget about her, as though she never existed. But Sharon Robarts-Johnson has given her a chance to make her story known – it might be blurry around the edges as Robarts-Johnson fills in the gaps with her research-informed imagination, but it’s here for the world to see. Jude once lived. Her life mattered.

All I has left is my mem’ries. Bad as some of them wuz, they still be mine.

Jude and Diana would fit nicely into Marcie’s reading project: “Slavery: Past and Present, Here and Elsewhere.”

Thank you to Fernwood Publishing for generously sending me a copy of this book!

20 thoughts on “Jude and Diana by Sharon Robart-Johnson

  1. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    What a lovely review!

    I can’t imagine looking at a human and thinking, it’s mine, my property, I can do what I want with it – like they were a pair of scissors or a rake or something. To be that disconnected from a sense of common humanity… and that so many people willingly bought into this system for so long.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to imagine it no matter how many books I read.

      I wonder if there’s a book out there that is written with the purpose of showing the perspective of a slave-owner?

      • Marcie McCauley says:

        There’s one by Kaye Gibbons (I think it might be On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon) and also one by Valerie Martin (whose novels I discovered by virtue of a recommendation by Margaret Atwood) called Property…there are others, but I think you’d really enjoy these and they are also very short (with respect to your massive TBR).

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’m sure there are plenty of people in Canada, USA, Australia who could write the slaves’ POV. We haven’t moved on that far, as all the Black people killed with impunity every day by our representatives, the police, could attest.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    This was a great review Naomi, and what a powerful book, wow. Good on you for reading this one, it was no doubt difficult, especially reading about children in slavery is so tough. It’s a sad reminder too that children are still enslaved today in other parts of the world – reading books about slavery from a few centuries ago keeps this knowledge at the forefront of our minds, and inspires us to keep fighting for children’s rights across the globe 🙂

  4. Marcie McCauley says:

    Thanks, kindly, for linking to my project: I’ll definitely have a look for this one. Sometimes I find the books from Fernwood a little “on the nose”, with such a focus on the concept that the storytelling isn’t necessarily of equal importance, but I also think they expose and discuss some very interesting and importance subjects, too-often overlooked.

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean. I think this one is well-told, though, and felt like it came from the heart. There was a little repetition, but I also thought that’s sometimes natural when someone is telling their story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s