Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
Riverhead – February 5, 2008 – Hardcover – 368 pages
Source: Personal Copy
Song Yet Sung has the distinct honor of being the book that I turned to after reading masterpieces To Kill A Mockingbird and The Color Purple. I knew that I couldn’t just pull any old thing off the shelf. What would possibly compare? Nothing. I thought about reading something radically different and lighthearted, but in the end I chose another thoughtful book that was recommended by Mary Sharratt.
Liz Spocott is an escaped slave running through the swamps of Maryland’s eastern shores when she is caught by an unlikely slave catcher, and brought to slave trader Patty Cannon’s attic. There she meets a nameless old woman who whispers to her pieces of an old, secret code that can get her to freedom. A chance opportunity gives Liz the chance to run again, and she has no choice but to take it, in the process wreaking havoc in the lives of all that she meets.
This is a big read where lots happens and the reader is introduced to many characters whose purposes are doubled, both transparent, obvious, yet mysterious. A white woman rules her own posse with a brutal hand and kidnaps slaves to sell further south into an even more brutal existence, “devoted” slaves run secret operations to get others to freedom, a mythical man who haunts the woods is as helpful as he is menacing, and mysterious codes abound, not to be deciphered but to be followed implicitly and without deviation upon promise of death. Movement in this novel is frequent and often urgent, as the characters are playing high stakes life and death games involving each other as participants. McBride is such a skillful writer that you are immediately at the heart of wherever you are and completely invested in events.
Slave narratives and stories in a similar vein are ones that I choose with considerable care. It is a tremendous subject to approach in literature and if diligent effort isn’t made to address the complexities of the institution of slavery, I am often not tempted or quickly lose interest. Novels I choose to read like this have all approached the subject from unique angles and perspectives; what I found intriguing about this one was the character of Liz Spocott who was also known as ‘The Dreamer”, and the white, female slave trader Patty and her racially diverse helpers.
The Dreamer’s visions are alternately wonderful and bleak, leaving me to spend a lot of time thinking about what the people who had worked so hard to be free would say about the places their sacrifices have led. The author seems to have some strong opinions on this based on the visions that are unfolding to Liz. Patty explodes the myth of the delicate and genteel southern flower- she is as rough and hardened as they come. The action in this book is very much oriented in the present, while there a few hints dropped here and there, I would have loved to know more about the pasts of all the characters, especially these two intriguing women.
Still within the time frame of the novel, the characters are portrayed in a well rounded manner and with such care that gives insight into all and leave none as caricatures. McBride’s writing is intensely engaging and at times I had to step away and ponder the weight of the book and the wealth of information that he imparts. Moral questions abound and I spent a lot of time absorbed in examining each nugget of information to see what I would have been capable of in the shoes of any of the complex people dwelling in McBride’s pages. His detailed treatment of The Underground Railroad, about whose operation little is known, is fascinating and not to be missed.
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