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A Million Nightingales: A Novel Hardcover – March 21, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in Southern plantations and bayous during the years just following the Louisiana Purchase, Straight's impressionistic character study effectively evokes the conflicted mélange of races, nationalities and cultures that defined the early 19th-century territory. The novel spans the life of Moinette, a "mulatresse," beginning with the events that wrench her from her mother at age 14, to her final days in her 40s. Moinette's first young mistress, Cephaline, exposes her to book learning, and Moinette struggles to negotiate the contradictions between the language of science and her mother's belief in traditional Senegalese spirits, a dichotomy that haunts her throughout her life. After Cephaline's premature death, Moinette, light-skinned and beautiful, is sold upriver and separated from her beloved mother. She repeatedly suffers sexual assault and must use her wits to protect herself, and later her son and daughters. While Straight (Highwire Moon) vividly depicts the danger and degradation black women faced, she also makes feminist comparisons between Moinette's enslavement and the situations of her wealthy white mistresses. However, the terms of Moinette's very sophisticated understanding of what's happening to her seem anachronistic, and the success she achieves, combined with the handy coincidences that lead to it, although tempered with tragedy, are too convenient to be entirely convincing. (Mar.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Straight, whose sixth novel explores family bonds, slavery, and freedom in a dark period of American history, elicited almost universal praise. Moinette, an intelligent, moving narrative presence who navigates througheven exploitsslavery's constraints, charmed critics. Straight's evocative language also impressed them, as did the depth of her historical researchfrom boot blacking to gory scenes of murdered runaway slaves. (A glossary of Creole and French terms helps.) Only the Los Angeles Times felt that Straight's historical novel was, first and foremost, a polished literary exercise. (The critic suggested reading more "honest historical melodrama" like Gone With the Wind). Despite this minor criticism, A Million Nightingales is an affecting, powerful story.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Through the eyes of Moinette, we see what it was like to be totally dependant upon the caprice of owners, good and bad. Through her, too, we hear a cry for freedom in interior monologue as poignant as any we've heard. Susan Straight brings an elegant use of language to this novel, a way with metaphor that is sheer poetry, lyrical in sound as well as image, a song both beautiful and terrifying.
An inordinately intelligent child, Moinette learns more than most men or women of that day simply by listening to her young mistress repeat her lessons and confirming what she hears by looking at the pages when it's safe for a black girl who can read end write. She must conceal what she has learned for severe punishments await a slave discovered to be literate. We learn, too, from her silence -- head down, never looking the master in the eyes, no answering back; indeed, a slave never begins a conversation, but simply waits to be called upon. To do more can be taken as a sign of defiance. As a consequence of the rigidity governing a slaves' speech, we learn more and more about the culture and the strict boundaries set for slaves. For that reason, too, much of the story is told in interior thought, i.e., what a slave thinks and the way she sees the world without verbalizing experience.
"A Million Nightingales" shows the reader, perhaps for the first time, the constant fear with which slaves live their lives. Here, Ms. Straight teaches us how it is to have nothing, a dress, a cape, perhaps shoes; but nothing else in a place where even one's body belongs to someone else, where every action, frown or faint smile can be a signal for swift reprisal, a slap, a whip, club.
Ms. Straight is also an artist in doling out suspense, the companion of pain and death. By the time she is 17, Moinette has been raped several times by white as well as black men. Finally a child is conceived and she gives birth to to a boy. While she is a willing and competent worker, she is punished for slight infractions of plantation rules. In this book, we experience what slavery can be like when Moinette is sent away with a visitor to the plantation only to realize that she has been sold without permission even to say goodbye to her mother. Her terror throughout this ordeal is palpable, rendering her literally catatonic as she imagines the things the slave owners and traders might do to her.
Moinette has but two great loves in her life, her supposed mother and her own child, and to a lesser degree other slaves who live near her in the slave's quarters. It is her deep love for those few human beings that sustains her through the hardships that slavery presents. In this new life, a single man, a lawyer who wants her as the manager of his household, maid, housekeeper, laundress, cook. For a very long time she is afraid that he too will sexually assault her. As they begin to trust each other, their lives settle into a benign relationship of respect, although she never truly loves him -- how could she love a master, a person who owns her. In a truly astonishing close, Moinette wins all and true to her theme. leaves it to the children she loves most.
I devoured everything she had available for my Kindle and, since ordered everything she has written from Amazon.
Her characters are amazing. I just finished HIGHWIRE MOON. I will never look at a strawberry or an orange without wondering about who exactly picked it for me. Serafina, Larry and Elvia have touched my heart. The primal wound that each carry in a different manner is unforgettable.
I read as a means of sanity. Anytime I find an author who gets it right I celebrate that they were given their very special talent, and that have been able to share it with me.