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Canaan's Tongue Hardcover – May 24, 2005

3.9 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This much-anticipated second fiction from Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep, 2001) is more an evil take on Tristram Shandy or Mason & Dixon than on Right Hand precursors Graham Greene or Joseph Roth. Genuine and imagined quotes from Mark Twain, narrative passages by assorted quixotic characters (including the occasional declaration from God), diary entries, letters, criminal inquisitions, etc., are brilliantly used by Wray to describe, and partially veil, the real-life atrocities of the infamous mid–19th-century preacher, horse thief and murderous schemer John Murrell, called the "Redeemer" by Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Set in 1863 and narrated chiefly by Virgil Ball, the right-hand man and eventual assassin of Thaddeus Morelle (Wray's fictional "Redeemer"), the novel details the final days of a curious handful of holdout cutthroats from Morelle's once much-larger band at Geburah Plantation, La., on the banks of the "Big Muddy." As the novel opens, one of the group has been found murdered, and the resulting inquiry unfolds by fits and starts amid an untidy sequence of flashbacks. The dark side of American history has always been best treated by the novel, and Wray does justice to some incredibly rich and challenging material, forging a style that is as loose and wild as its subjects. Steeped in effective 19th-century archaism, yet steely in sustaining the story, the prose is as poetic as it is violent.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

From the prizewinning author of The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) comes a darkly allegorical novel set on the eve of the Civil War. John Murrell, the Redeemer, a historical figure mentioned in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, is a charismatic land pirate posing as an itinerant preacher. With a bizarre gang of accomplices, he resells stolen slaves. What began as the "Trade" becomes much more degenerate. Murrell divines the weakness of each of his gang members and uses it to control and corrupt them, even from the grave. As war breaks out, the gang is hunted by both the Union and Confederate armies and holes up on crumbling Geburah Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi. One by one, the members of the Trade begin to die in strange ways while waiting for the Redeemer to return. Wray tells a powerfully dark story that incorporates Southern culture and the wisdom of the kabbalah with just a touch of the occult. Elizabeth Dickie
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (May 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040868
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040865
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,805,077 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
reviews of this book in the NY Times and other periodicals may give one the impression that this is an historical novel about the slave trade on the mississippi river, circa civil war. the primary focus of this book , however, is on the often violent relationships among the sociopathic members of the slave trading gang portrayed in the book. furthermore, the tone of the book is quite surrealistic and some elements of the story are bizarre and fantastical.

other reviewers have commented that this is a hard read, and it is. the prose has been aptly described as "gothic". the author, mr. wray, doesn't seem to elaborate the plot very directly, he rather refers to it an oblique sort of way. as a result, readers may be left confused and frustrated.

on the plus side, this book was obviously a labor of love. the prose is exceedingly elegant and poetic; the book seems well researched, and the author is quite clever with some of the literary devices he employs. one also does pick up some history along the way, and the book drips with the ambience of the times. Ultimately, despite it's shortcomings, i found myself drawn to this book: though frustrating, it was hard to put down.
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Format: Hardcover
The excitement I got from reading this novel reminded me of the first time I read a book by Cormac McCarthy, or Garcia Marquez, or even early Steven King. It's just unforgettable. Like the writers I've mentioned, Canaan's Tongue creates a world that looks a lot like ours, a world that convinces completely but at the same time is deeply strange and unsettling. I read in an interview that Wray wanted to write a book that commented on America today--sort of like a fairy-tale, but also like a political cartoon--and maybe that explains the bizarreness of some parts of the narrative. Except this book is way too creepy to be a political cartoon. I read it in about two days, and I really felt somehow altered when I finished the last page. Unbelievably powerful writing!
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Format: Hardcover
Literary historical fiction, ostensibly about slave-stealers during the Civil War.

But really about belief and its pitfalls, mysticism that cannot entirely be explained away, and the choice that America during the Civil War was on the verge of making.

Canaan's Tongue features one appealing character and others who are fascinating (like snakes). At times it's darkly humorous and at other times beautiful or grotesque. As historical fiction, it succeeds in taking no account at all of modern beliefs or politics (thankfully). At the same time, it can be interpreted as an indictment of the "modern civilization" that was to come -- where everything becomes the Trade.

I think this is a great novel that has somehow slipped into the world without much fanfare. I highly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wanted to love this book as much as I loved Lowboy. Have you ever realized something is brilliant, but that you have to work too hard to understand, and you don't really end up understanding? That was my experience. I didn't look forward to picking it up each evening. That said, these are some amazing and complex characters that we have something to learn from. Dark and disturbing, I needed a shower when I finished this book.
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Format: Hardcover
John Wray's ambitious second novel features a broad, almost epic scope and a huge cast of characters, members of a violent gang run by a messianic preacher, Thaddeus Morelle. Known as "the Redeemer," Morelle runs The Trade, a business in which runaway slaves participate in a scheme in which they are sold downstream, aided in running away, and then resold again, with Morelle "sharing" the fees. The highest levels of government, including an aide and Cabinet member of President Lincoln, and army officers from both the North and South, are involved in the Trade. When war breaks out, however, Morelle and his men become the common enemy of both sides.

By 1863, Morelle (sometimes known as Myrell or Murrell) has created his own world on Island 37 in the Mississippi River, "the cradle of the [slave] trade," just north of New Orleans. Virgil Ball, son of a Kansas preacher, "student of Spinoza and Descartes," and the focus of much of the action, is "the Redeemer's darling," bright, literate, and willing to commit murder without remorse. The other members of the gang, equally violent and even more bizarre, gradually reveal how they, too, have become associated with Morelle and how they have acted on his instructions.

In the second half of the novel, the "religion" of Morelle and his "apostles" gains more attention, with numerous references to a small blind child, the OLD Old Testament, the sephira of the kabbala, mystical symbols, the "ladder of the spirit," and cleansing through violence. Believing that the Canaanites are the descendants of the sixth tribe of Israel, Morelle's followers wish to learn "Canaan's tongue...the language of the elect."

The story moves back and forth in time and is told through the first-person points of view of the eight gang members.
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Format: Hardcover
The remnants of a shattered crime organization wait on a Southern plantation for the Civil War to finish them off. So goes the plot of Canaan's Tongue, the second book by prizewinning author John Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep). Their charismatic if physically stunted and theatrical leader, Thaddeus Morelle, a "plain-faced dumpling of a man" known as the Redeemer, is dead, leaving his underlings to piece together this assemblage of individual retrospectives. Their trade, which involves the springing of slaves to sell at a profit and eventually murder, is threatened by the rising tide of abolitionist sentiment, the same on which they once depended.

Vicious criminals, yes, and yet none of Wray's characters are at any point islands unto themselves. Instead, they are all subject to the will of a still-higher power, becoming its "play-thing" and being "fashioned and favored toward that end alone." Even the big shots get stuck with this bone. This is life as part of "the Trade," a continuously re-invented enterprise that we are told will eventually encompass the world and hide in the very language, feeding on us even while we think ourselves cured.

The novel's political premise is none-to-subtle; men and women, lured by the promise of freedom and prosperity, walk right into slavery and death. "The country itself will have this fever," we are warned, and "its transparency will be its shelter." Yet if Wray stops just short of using billboards to advertise this point, Canaan still manages to fascinate us with its gothic intrigue and imaginative strangeness. It is a rare and absorbing book that manages to transcend both historical period and cultural agenda to deliver what is ultimately a fresh perspective on a tried and tired Matrix school of thought.
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