Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662
The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a nineteenth century novel by Hannah Crafts, is believed to be at least partly autobiographical, and its narrator shares the name of the author. It is impossible, however, to determine how much of the text is a factual account of the Crafts’s life and how much is fiction based on the author’s general experience. In the novel, Hannah—a young slave girl on a North Carolina plantation—demonstrates an unusual desire to learn to read. A kind old couple that lives nearby breaks the law by teaching her. They also convert her to Christianity. However, the couple’s actions are discovered, and they are sent to jail. The deeply saddened Hannah, however, grows up working as a trusted house slave.
At her master’s large wedding, Hannah notices Mr. Trappe, a stern-looking older man dressed in black, following the bride, who is Hannah’s new mistress. Soon after the wedding, Mr. Trappe is ensconced in a room of his own at the plantation: The mysterious lawyer rarely lets the young bride out of his sight. Hannah’s new mistress is miserable, and Hannah comes to believe that Mr. Trappe holds an enormous secret over her head. As time goes on, Hannah and the Mistress become devoted to each other. The Mistress becomes ill and rarely leaves the house. Then, Hannah discovers her secret: Her mistress is biracial. Under North Carolina law, she is a slave. Unless the Mistress obeys him, Mr. Trappe has threatened to tell the bride’s husband her secret.
Hannah tells the Mistress that she must flee and promises to go with her. They plan to escape at night, run to the river, and take a boat to safety in the North. However, they get lost in the woods and walk in circles for hours. The following day, they continue wandering and come across a hospitable home in which to spend the night. When they discover that Mr. Trappe is trailing them, they take off again into the woods, where they find an unoccupied shack. For months, they remain hidden, forced to eat whatever they can scrounge. Hannah’s mistress begins to go insane. In the springtime, hunters discover them and take them off to jail. Horace, one of the hunters, tells Hannah that her master committed suicide after Mr. Trappe informed him of his wife’s secret.
In prison, the two women encounter Mrs. Wright, who has been imprisoned for attempting to help a slave girl escape. Mrs. Wright has become deranged, and she believes that she is living in a palace and that Hannah and the Mistress are her guests. Similarly, Hannah’s mistress continues her own descent into madness. Slowly, both women become friendly with the guards and are moved to a house where their life is better; it hardly seems like a prison. However, Mr. Trappe shows up, and the women find themselves back in his power. The Mistress can no longer stand the stress; she has a stroke and dies.
After Trappe’s latest victim dies, he is forced to sell Hannah. However, the slave dealer is killed and Hannah is severely injured in an accident involving a horse and cart. The kind Mrs. Henry cares for Hannah, who, in time, comes to love her. However, Hannah is eventually sold to a Mrs. Wheeler from Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Wheeler makes Hannah’s life a nightmare. She sends her to purchase a special face powder that, through a strange chemical reaction, makes her face turn black. The outraged Mrs. Wheeler orders Hannah to work in the fields, to live in a slave cabin, and to marry a rough field hand. Hannah cannot endure this punishment, so she decides to flee to the North. During her flight, she is rescued by Mrs. Hetty, the same woman who taught Hannah to read as a child. Eventually, Hannah escapes to the North, where, happily, she manages to find her long-lost mother.