|Song Yet Sung
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From the New York Times-bestselling author of The Color of Water comes a powerful page-turner about a runaway slave and a determined slave catcher. Nowhere has the drama of American slavery played itself out with more tension than in the dripping swamps of Maryland's eastern shore, where abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, born less than thirty miles apart, faced off against nefarious slave traders in a catch-me-if-you-can game that fueled fear and brought economic hardship to both white and black families. Trapped in the middle were the watermen, a group of America's most original and colorful pioneers, poor oystermen who often found themselves caught between the needs of rich plantation owners and the roaring Chesapeake, which often claimed their lives. The powerful web of relationships in a small Chesapeake Bay town collapses as two souls face off in a gripping page-turner. Liz Spocott, a young runaway who has odd dreams about the future of the colored race, mistakenly inspires a breakout from the prison attic of a notorious slave thief named Patty Cannon. As Cannon stokes revenge, Liz flees into the nefarious world of the underground railroad with its double meanings and unspoken clues to freedom known to the slaves of Dorchester County as "The Code." Denwood Long, a troubled slave catcher and eastern shore waterman, is coaxed out of retirement to break "The Code" and track down Liz. Filled with rich history -- much of the story is drawn from historical events -- and told in McBride's signature lyrical storytelling style, Song Yet Sung brings into full view a world long misunderstood in American fiction: how slavery worked, and the haunting, moral choices that lived beneath the surface, pressing both whites and blacks to search for relief in a world where both seemed to lose their moral compass. This is a story of tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness.
- No More Disappointment
When I was a newspaper editor and realized the beautiful prose that James McBride was capable of writing, it was one of my great disappointments that I was unable to talk him into going to work for me. That feeling diminished when "The Color of Water" became such a powerful and lyrical memoir. And now I know no disappointment; it would have been a shame had he been diverted from embarking on a career writing such magnificent work as "Song Yet Sung." ...more info
- A mesmerizing, suspenseful tale of evil and determination
A deeply engaging and thoughtful storyteller, McBride takes the reader into the corrupt heart of the slave era in 1850 in this tale of desperation, heroism and cruelty.
The novel's catalyst is Liz Spocott, a runaway slave who dreams of a strange, alien future, which the reader will recognize as our present. "Liz had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died."
But her chances don't look good. Shackled in a stifling attic with a group of other recaptured slaves, a musket-ball wound to her head, Liz recovers consciousness only to face a rapist, a man of her own race who serves his ruthless female master by rounding up escaped slaves and indulges his sadistic lust with the captive women. But Liz is resourceful and, with little to lose and everything to gain, fights off her attacker, freeing the whole attic-full in the process.
Her journey - seeking knowledge, seeking freedom - striving to live when real freedom seems to lie only in death - involves many voices. Point of view remains in the third person but wanders across the landscape of Maryland's swampy shore, a place shaped by its proximity to freedom; the Pennsylvania border only 80 miles away.
The tantalizing beacon of freedom attracts particular sorts of people. Runaways, willing to risk death for a chance at freedom, give rise to the sorts of thugs willing to make their living as slave catchers. These gangs spread a violent miasma through the populace, sparking fear, resentment and sometimes heroism.
Among those Liz encounters is a crazed hermit, an escaped slave who lives in the shadows of the wood, with only a child to keep him tethered to the wider world. His mind is a bewildered wilderness, canny but confused, skittish of all humans, but enraged beyond caution when the white world takes his son.
Then there are the slaves who help her at great risk to themselves. And the slaves who shy from her in fear or scheme to turn her in for the reward.
And there are the slave owners. Liz's owner, a rich man with a plantation full of slaves, hires a slave catcher with a limp, a hard past, a deep sadness and quick perceptions. The widow who owns the slaves who help Liz, her life intertwined emotionally and economically with the family she owns, senses their secrets and contemplates a human sale to protect her finances.
Slavery colors everything and everyone. Good people are corrupted, evil is magnified, moral choices are hedged by greed or fear, the weak succumb to temptations or coercions that embitter their lives.
Relationships are shaped by slavery, particularly the shadowy duplicity of the double life most slaves lead. McBride explores the intricacies of the secret code the slaves worked out to communicate secretly despite the suspicious scrutiny of whites, a code that enabled many to escape.
But relations between blacks are also fraught, by the insecurity of a future not their own to choose and by the danger of love, which can be a cruel bond as strong as any chains.
Without polemics McBride explores how slavery exerts a deep, indelible harm on all it touches, with scars that leach through generations.
Liz's visions extend the reach of history into the future along a path that rouses dismay and disgust in Liz who believes freedom should raise up her fellow slaves, whose faults are rooted in slavery and whose bravery is in spite of it.
McBride's second novel (after "The Miracle at St. Anna" and the memoir "The Color of Water") is an action-packed story of the violence people willingly do to one another (particularly but not only to those they view as property) full of memorable and horrible characters and imbued with a deep, aching vision of life during slavery and its long, lingering legacy....more info
- Every One a Slave
"Song Yet Sung" is a portrait of slaves and poor whites in the hard scrabble life of farmers and oystermen as well as slave traders and stealers in pre-civil war Maryland. A character-driven novel -- often shocking in its cruelty -- the book centers about the desires and schemes of the enslaved to break their chains and their captors who are equally determined to keep them in slavery. None of the people, black or white, in this book are wealthy but we learn little of what happens to the thousands of dollars made by those who kidnap black people to sell. We also see in this book how poverty and a culture that allows one to own fellow human beings dehumanizes all.
"Song Yet Sung" opens with a coffle of fourteen slaves who have been kidnapped and are hidden in an attic. Liz, the newest captive, has been shot in the face, a miniball lodged in her forehead. Although half-starved, exhausted, and bled nearly to death, she exites her fellow prisoners with her "visions" and prophetic, subconscious wonderings. For those revelations, she is dubbed, "Dreamer." a nickname she will wear throughout her life.
In an explosive breakout from the attic the slaves run in all directions like ants from a broken nest. Thus, Liz makes her way alone through the forests and swamps toward freedom.
While there are many surprising twists and turns as well as a half dozen well-developed characters of both races in the book, to me the main story was Liz's relentless scramble to be free. Along the way, others enter the plot: e.g., Amber, an intelligent, loyal, and kind-hearted slave and his mistress, Miss Kathleen, a natural foil for Miss Patty, a notorious slave stealer with her vicious band who prey on African Americans, both slave and free, to sell to traders on the river. These forces are balanced, albeit unevenly by Denwood, a famous catcher of runaway slaves, and the constables, both town and county, who attempt half-heartedly to control lawlessness.
All are held captive in the same cycle of violence, a struggle only eighty miles from the northern states of freedom. A further thread developed in the plot is "the code" a complicated system of signals by which runaway slaves can be assisted in their flight to freedom, and a useful tool to warn local slaves of danger in the form of menacing whites, slave catchers and hunters.
Of particular note, too, is McBride's great skill in developing suspense. The following is but one of dozens of examples of such scenes in "Song Yet Sung."
"He moved out of the Indian burial ground towards Sinking Creek and spotted them almost instantly, from a distance: three people on horses, one of them a woman, perhaps the same three who had surprised him at the farm. They moved as all white men did, loudly and in packs, with their horses struggling through the bog. The horses up to their knees in swamp and muck, gingerly picking their way through the mud to find dry land upon which to lay their feet, the horses leading the men rather than the other way around." (p.168)
This book is written in the voice of a storyteller, not always true to the times or accurate historical idiom, faults offset by McBride's agility at building and maintaining suspense in the deadly game of hide and seek in the forests, rivers, and swampy terrain. There, the heartbeat of the hunter and the hunted are equally revealed. Song Yet Sung is an exciting read, one I enjoyed hugely. But, the conclusion seemed too "pat," where good is rewarded and evil is punished, a bit too slick to believe. ...more info
- Interesting tale of slave breakout
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.
- An Exquisite Song
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.
- Great great book
This was an excellent book and at certain parts my heart pounded and my hands shook while I was reading it. ...more info
- Life among the slaves
SONG YET SUNG by James McBride tells the story of the Dreamer, a stolen slave whose real name is Liz. Liz is captured by Patty, a white woman who steals slaves and sells them in the Deep South, but before she does, she puts them in an attic in her house under the care of Little George, who breaks them. Liz had a bullet wound to the head and it caused her to sleep a lot. While asleep, she dreamed there was a metal spike in the floor near her. When she awoke, she found herself biting away the wood around the spike. Little George comes to rape her, as he does all the women, even the Old Woman Without a Name, and Liz pulls the spike up and thrusts it into Little George's neck. The other slaves see an opportunity; they attack Little George also and all of them escape. Liz is found by another slave who treats her wound and nurses her back to health, but since her head wound, Liz can see deep into the future.
Kathy Sullivan, a white woman who lives far out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, lost her husband and a slave to the Chesapeake Bay six months ago. She, nor Mary, the slave's wife, believe they drowned and look for them each day. Amber, a tall, good looking slave and brother to Mary, finds Liz and hides her away. The action really begins as Woolman, a mythical runaway to the white people and a reality to the black ones, begins to cause havoc on the Eastern Shore. Woolman is a huge man with wild wooly hair that hangs to his back. With extraordinary strength, and being quick on his feet he can disappear into the swamp causing even the believers to doubt their eyes. The two plots begin to blend, making for an exciting ending.
James McBride has penned a fantastic novel about slaves in the 1850s. The characters are well-developed and even though there are many of them, the two plots blend together and each person stands out on his/her own. It is a novel that should be read by all. I highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Alice Holman
of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers
- A Must Read
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....more info
- Another WINNER!
Another winner by James McBride! I was a bit hesitant in the beginning as I am not a fan of "time travel" and science fiction....but was immediately won over by McBride's close attention to historical detail and unforgettable characters! He has woven a storyline that will soon not be forgotten! It will be hard picking up another book as the characters will haunt me well past the last page!!!...more info
- ENTHRALLING AND BEAUTIFUL......
Liz Spocott is a beautiful runaway slave...captured by the infamous Patty Cannon and her gang and being left for practically dead in an attic surrounded by other unfortunates, Liz is the catalyst for a revolt and subsequent escape...costing Patty and her gang a fortune. Liz--who has always been plagued by prophetic dreams and second sight--is soon legendary amongst the slaves and freemen of the eastern shore of Maryland...inciting thoughts of freedom amongst slaves and unease amidst their owners. Soon Liz becomes the most sought-after woman of color in the region...; some for money, others for inspiration; and for at least one person in particular...love. A compelling, lyrical tale of the tightly woven network of slaves and their relationships; with their masters, and most especially with each other. Most intriguing are the details involving the non-verbal method of communication that slaves used. A story so rich in detail and historical fact that it is almost lyrical in its telling. A must read.
- Haunting - will stay with you forever
It's actually been over a year since I read this book - and I think I am going to pick it up again. The story of yearning for freedom, the secret communications, the struggle that bonded the characters still resonates with me. While I have no personal history or anecdotes that provide me with any similarities to the story or the characters, when I read this book - I feel like I have been dipped in their world. It stayed with me like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' did - and I am eager to re-read it and go back. You must stop reading this review now and go buy the book....more info
- an instant classic
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....more info
- Intense Read---
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!...more info