It's hard to review this novel without resorting to superlatives. James McBride creates a complete world on the edge of the Maryland swamps, inhabited by slaves and plantation owners, lost souls, heroes, and dreamers. Liz, an escaped slave in desperate straits, injured and ruthlessly hunted, has psychic visions. Suspense builds, reaching a terrifying, violent climax that feels inevitable, in which the characters' ultimate choices are expressions of who they are.
The writing is so beautiful and true that it gives you goose bumps. Liz's dreams of the future exquisitely convey, through the eyes of a time traveler, the wonder and tribulations of contemporary American life. The characters transcend stereotypes and come alive. Even Patty, a female-slave catcher who embodies absolute evil, is unique, individual, and fascinating. The interactions between the desperate young slave who loves Liz, and his struggling, widowed female owner, decent people trapped in an inhuman situation, are full of nuance and complexity.
The theme of slavery, the paranormal element, and the sheer brilliance of the writing invite comparison with Toni Morrison's Beloved. This is a superb work of literature.
There is an amazing book of short stories from Eduardo Galeano called Book of Embraces (Norton Paperback). In one of the most amazing vignettes, "Celebration of the Human Voice 2", Galeano talks about life in a Uruguayan prison. Prisoners, unable to speak, invented their own communication system with fingers. Galeano writes, "When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice". I kept on thinking of that quote in James McBride's powerful, moving, amazing new book, "Song Yet Sung", for his characters, many of whom have no voice, still find ways to speak across the miles, and across the pages.
This novel starts with Liz, who is nicknamed the Dreamer, and her gift of seeing the future is well known and well feared in pre-Civil War Maryland. Captured by a notorious slave catcher named Patty Cannon, Liz meets an old woman who spins her own fantastic tale of "the Code", none of which makes sense either to us or Liz. Determined to escape from her attic confines, Liz makes a daring move and frees herself and everyone else in the attic, thus starting the rest of the story, which is a hunt for Liz.
Liz's former owner and secret paramour hires a succesful slave catcher himself, Denwood Long, unfortunately named "the Gimp", who has a haunted past himself. Along with him, Patty Cannon gathers her own posse of people to ruthlessly hunt Liz. There is even a backwoods "bogey man", called the Woolman, who comes into the story in a very believable and chilling way.
However, it's Liz where much of the theme of the story lies. It's in her dreams that began to intrigue me. Here we have a slave, on the run, who defies wanting to be put on the Underground Railroad because her dreams of life for African-Americans up north, she sees, isn't good at all. McBride's reflections on some aspects of black culture intrigue. Slaves so longed for their freedom, and yet, look at where it has lead some of them. (Coincidentally, I have started watching HBO's visionary series The Wire - The Complete First Season). Will Liz decide, against her visions of the future, to escape?
Secondly, McBride's description of "The Code" is simply amazing. I think this is the first novel that I've read where the path to the Underground Railroad was so brilliantly shown. It really was an amazing thing how the "Code" developed, and was known and understood by many. Simply by word of mouth, during a time of intense trial, people found their voice and sang in a way that saved many a life.
Song Yet Sung is not only a reflection of culture, of life in the slave south, and a gripping adventure story, but it also is a celebration of the human spirit. As the book draws to an end, you do feel as if you've spent time in another world. Rich with descriptions, deeply felt characters, tension, and tenderness, Song Yet Sung will be a book that shall be with us for years on end, and hopefully, discussed, examined, to unlock its deep, rich treasures.
on April 30, 2008
James McBride's Song Yet Sung is a great addition to the genre of African American literature. McBride weaves a complex story that begins with runaway slave, Liz Spocott. Liz is near death when she is captured by a slave trader. She finds herself imprisoned with a small group of slaves. In this group is a `woman with no name' who tries to explain the much guarded slavery `Code' to Liz, but Liz is confused by the woman's curious ranting and is overcome by dreams of the future. Liz inadvertently frees herself and the group of slaves. She continues to have strange dreams of tomorrow. The news of her dreams spread as she makes her way through the unfamiliar countryside. Liz's journey becomes entwined with many others: slaves unveiling parts of the Code to her; slave catchers seeking to capture her; and various members of the community that are unknowingly linked together through Liz.
McBride touches on the past, present, and future of our racially divided country. Song Yet Sung has a lyrical style that runs the full range of emotions and shows the complexity of the human spirit. This wonderfully written work will strike a chord with readers.
Reviewed by M. P. McKinney
on February 27, 2008
Normally I would not forgive an author for stretching reality to the point of this work - a civil war slave having dreams of Martin Luther King - but this author has a quality of writing that is almost too real. His characters have texture and heft, his scenes have smell and contour and you can believe that the dreamer longs for freedom so badly that she can "conjure" MLK. I have been reading slave naratives and the history of the war between the states since being a teenager, but NEVER has a book actually TAKEN me to that time period, scared me, made me grieve and make me feel such a total part of that sad history. This is an excellent tale told by a worthy author and he deserves to be put on your best book shelf - and shared with friends. Good job!
on February 17, 2008
James McBride writes like the superb jazz musician that he is; the words flow with the sinuous enchantment of an inspired saxophone lick.
McBride has opened a channel into the minds of slaves, slave catchers, and others along Maryland's eastern shore circa 1850. The swamps are choked with intrigue and suspense as runaways struggle to escape from the hands of their callous, greedy pursuers.
One slave hunter is a woman. McBride draws an incredible picture of evil that is somehow tricked out with a few admirable qualities. Very few, but enough to give readers a glimmer of our own conflicted emotions.
The central figure, Liz the Dreamer, possesses a tragic gift. She can see the future and she sees her people will still be enslaved, even today.
McBride has penned a work for the ages.
on April 15, 2008
James McBride's THE COLOR OF WATER is one of my all-time
favorite memoirs . . . his latest, SONG YET SUNG, isn't quite in
the same class--though I nonetheless found it interesting.
The novel begins with a slave breakout in the swamps of Maryland's
eastern shore . . . what follows is a tale of tale of both violence and
hope among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, runaway
slaves, and free blacks.
In doing so, McBride introduces a wide range of colorful
characters . . . they all move the plot along, though personally,
I would have preferred more emphasis on fewer individuals.
I enjoyed the time travel aspect of the book and especially
the dreams of Liz Spocott, a beautiful runaways slave;
* She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber
wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who
smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their
pockets and murder in their eyes . . . and colored men dressed in
garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging
like drunkards--every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean
out of them.
That passage also points out another reason you'll want to read
SONG YET SUNG; i.e., because McBride writes as well as any
author you'll ever come across . . . among the many other passages
that caught my attention were the following:
* Denwood thought about it for a long minute. He disliked making deals with
slaves and free blacks. It happened him in too many ways, mostly internally,
because in making deals with them, they became more human to him, and
in doing so-try as he might to resist the feeling-they became less slave
and more man to him. He could not make a deal with a pig, or a dog, or a
piece of pork. But if a man says to another man or woman, I'll give you this
for that, then who are you dealing with? An equal? Or chattel? But he had
no choice. She was enemy or friend.
* Men, she thought bitterly. They run the world to sin and then wonder why
the world wakes up every morning sucking sorrow.
I ordinarily gloss over acknowledgments at the end of a book, but in this
case, I'm glad that I did not . . . McBride in his Author's Note explains
how this novel was inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman . . . make sure
you don't miss that part.
on May 3, 2008
James McBride has managed the astonishing feat of pursuing two different creative career paths - jazz composer/musician and writer - without letting either interfere with the other. His 1996 debut, The Color of Water, was a memoir and tribute of a black man to his white mother. His second book, the gripping 2002 novel Miracle at St. Anna, concerned black American soldiers in the mountains of northern Italy toward the end of World War II.
The new novel, Song Yet Sung, is something else again. In 1850, beautiful young slave Liz Spocott escapes from her Maryland plantation, and encounters both slave catchers and the black underground that transmits news and helps runaway slaves via "the code" - a peoples' telegraph sent by quilts, rope knots, and the slam of a blacksmith's hammer. Liz is also a little tetched: she's rumored to be a "two-headed woman, a dreamer, a conjurer," because she has visions of the future. More than a few folks are pursuing her, from Patty Cannon, a tough and profane slave catcher (a real person, McBride reveals in an afterward), with her crew of unsavory white and black thugs; to Denwood Long, "The Gimp," who comes out of retirement from slave catching for the huge reward Liz's owner has offered for the girl's return.
Deceptively simple, the narrative is clean, spare, and relentless. McBride's prose reminds me of the proverbial duck: smooth and tranquil above the surface to mask the furious paddling of novelistic invention and research underneath. The characters, from poor white laborers and venal lawmen to black teen slaves, are rich and complex. Some of the best scenes depict natural enemies feeling each other out in guarded conversations and coming to truces of potential benefit to both sides.
McBride offers a fecund portrait of the Delaware peninsula, as well: the marshy, almost jungle-like land on the east side of Chesapeake Bay, sparsely populated by oystermen, small farms, and the occasional wildman-recluse. Though rarely fancy, the language gives a strong sense of character and place. A man is said to move "like smoke with muscles" in a fight. Someone says: "Don't waste breath on him; he's deader'n yesterday's beer."
Trust me on this: Song Yet Sung (and Miracle at St. Anna) are more intense and startling than I can convey. Scenes don't make sense yet somehow feel right. The only possible misstep are Liz's visions of what are easily recognizable as hip-hop gangstas, Martin Luther King's march on Washington, and other specific snapshots of black American history a century and more away.
Miracle at St. Anna was recently filmed in Tuscany by Spike Lee, with a cast that includes James Gandolfini and John Turturro and a release date of October 2008. McBride wrote the screenplay. Meanwhile, he has composed songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington, and Gary Burton, and played tenor sax in Little Jimmy Scott's band. One shakes one's head: just being able to write a novel as beautiful as this would be enough for anyone else.
This is a "readable" novel - I finished it. I don't finish books that don't hold my interest in (pick one): compelling writing, compelling plot, outstanding use of language, or interesting characters. This one meets the mark in interesting characters and a sense of learning more about what slavery, and day-to-day relations between race were like pre-civil war, but that's about it. There are a range of characters from the young black woman who had supposed magic powers, a plethora of "bad people" led by a ruthless slave trader woman, an honest and courageous widowed farmer who treats her slaves with honor and integrity, and a lesser group of low-character types on the trail of any negro target they could catch, abduct, or otherwise capture and turn for profit. This leads to a range of concurrent storylines which detract from the plot - not add to it.There are a few likable characters - the widow farmer, her male slave, the "Woolman" (a black man who has left society to live mysteriously in the swamplands of Maryland's eastern shore), but the remainder are in a contest over who can be more vile, greedy, or contemptuous. Read it if you are hostorically minded and interested in learning about slavery with some elements (few) of the underground railroad, but if you're looking for a good story and a good page-turner read, pass it by.
Reading this book was like having a great meal - satisfying, fulfilling, and memorable. James McBride's SONG YET SUNG strikes a chord that resonates and creates inner feelings within all of us if we would only listen. Deep in my heart, and I'm certain in many others, are many mysteries surrounding the lives of our Southern slaves. How did they live? Communicate? What did they feel when subjected to servitude and disregard? How did they survive? Did they ever envision a better life?
McBride's skillful accounting of life on Maryland's Eastern Shore before the Civil War rung me up, wrung me out, and created a wonderful escape for me into the shadowy world of slaves, watermen, swamps, bay water, stormy weather, and the desperate attempts to overcome the hardships of them all. Liz, a dreamer, had visions during those times of hopelessness that reflect conditions of the present; circumstances that we struggle to understand while attempting to put a face on their origins. The author has composed a lyrical imagery of hope during that lurid past that reaches into the future for support and understanding of crippling wounds we tend to downplay.
I never had the sense of being preached to but when the book was finished I was touched and enlightened by its message. I'm not even sure the author was trying to gain my support for the black experience. And that, after all, is what makes a book pleasurable to me - the ability to make me reassess my mindset and check it for flaws. I highly recommend this book for a fresh look at a past from which we sometimes turn away.
on September 5, 2014
James McBride outdid himself in this read. Remarkable, Fascinating. There aren't enough words to describe how he delved into each character and made it real. I could picture each scenario and I think I lived each page of this book. Highly recommended.