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Song Yet Sung: A Novelby James McBride
"How do all these characters' stories combine? In a complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web that rises toward a dramatic climax. Mixed in with the action, McBride shows the complexity of his characters' inner lives and dilemmas — particularly his black characters. The cadence of their speech, the way they interact, the small details of their thoughts, desires, fears and hopes: These the author renders with exquisite ease." David Anthony Durham, The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"James McBride's famous memoir, 'The Color of Water,' was a personal examination of the author's upbringing in a large, biracial family. Looking back at the life of his white, Jewish mother, McBride chronicled a good part of the last century, from the pre-World War II South, to New York through the turbulent '60s, right up to the Clinton era. His first novel, 'Miracle at St. Anna' (which is currently... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) being filmed by Spike Lee), followed a black regiment through turbulent events in Italy late in World War II. It was a book of considerable breadth and character diversity, telling the tales of black and white soldiers, of Italian resistance fighters and peasants, and of Germans watching Hitler's vision die before their eyes. McBride is just as inclusive and ambitious in his new novel, 'Song Yet Sung.' The book begins: 'On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future.' With that, McBride places us back in a terrible time in American history and introduces a character that would seem to merit our pity: a slave woman in Maryland, trapped in a sinister system while living so very close to freedom. This is the well-documented territory of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. With them in mind, it's easy to assume Liz is praying for her freedom and the chance to have a family of her own. But her dreams are not so personal. She has been granted the gift (or curse) of prophecy: 'And it was not pleasant. 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.' Sound familiar? With that opening to this powerful novel, McBride makes it clear that he is not just interested in staring into an antique, distant past. This past is living. It is linked to the present, and the work ain't done yet. Liz has taken a musket ball to the head, killed a dog with her bare hands and been captured — not by 'legitimate' slave catchers, but by a criminal gang run by Patty Cannon, an engaging anti-heroine based on an actual person. With the help of her fellow captives, Liz escapes, and from that point the story's diverse cast is stirred into action, with Liz at the center of the storm. Patty and her gang are on Liz's trail, but they aren't the only ones. Liz's 'owner' wants the beautiful young woman back as well. He hires a retired slave catcher of great renown, Denwood Long (aka the Gimp). Long is a crotchety loner, 'a lean, rangy figure in oilskin hat and jacket' with a past full of pain. He is a master observer who reads truth or lies in the motions of people's hands. Sly and winning when he needs to be, he is also icily threatening when that will get the job done faster. Not everyone is out to enslave Liz. Amber, a slave waiting impatiently to fly for freedom himself, does what he can to help her. Amber's 'owner,' Kathleen Sullivan, mourns the recent death of her husband and struggles with her own warm feelings for her slaves. And then there is Woolman: 'half clothed, ripe and muscular, black as ebony, with pearl-white teeth, his sculpted body shaped and chiseled by years of hunting.' He roams the marshes outside of human civilization, a mythic character said to lead a pet alligator around on a leash. He has more than a few superhuman qualities, which he brings to play as he enters the fray. How do all these characters' stories combine? In a complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web that rises toward a dramatic climax. Mixed in with the action, McBride shows the complexity of his characters' inner lives and dilemmas — particularly his black characters. The cadence of their speech, the way they interact, the small details of their thoughts, desires, fears and hopes: These the author renders with exquisite ease. In scene after scene McBride shows the many ways blacks worked to aid each other to freedom. 'The Code' is part of this, a secret language of actions, signs, symbols and words by which the slaves communicate messages of resistance right under their masters' noses. The novel does have its weaker moments. At times McBride's exposition seems rushed, as if he's got more information to give than time to give it. His action scenes can feel like stage directions for a film. Some may groan that Liz's prescience is forced, especially as she sees further and further into the future, right up to bejeweled rappers spitting violence and misogyny. And some may point out the convenience of Liz's only predicting a future up to our present. The moment the ink was dry on the printing, 'Song Yet Sung' was being eclipsed by current events. (Liz does not, for example, mention a future in which a black, female Nobel Prize-winning author announces her support for a biracial presidential candidate with an African name.) But McBride's engagement with the historical continuum provides a new slant on an old subject. He may have set his novel in the 1850s, but he is writing about the hurdles we yet face. When Liz says, 'I said I would tell you of tomorrow. I didn't say tomorrow wasn't gonna hurt,' she is speaking to us. While McBride may not have his fictional character's prophetic gifts, he does have the ability to captivate, compel and challenge those of us still working to shape those tomorrows. David Anthony Durham is the author of four novels, including 'Walk Through Darkness,' set in antebellum America." Reviewed by David Anthony Durham, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution and sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner's sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon....Explosively dramatic." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"With a strong focus on the role of women, the author of the The Color of Water...recounts the history of slave revolts without sentimentality in a stirring novel of cruelty, betrayal, and courage....
"The pace of the action is slowed by implausibility, repetitive and often cartoonish description, fairly obvious anachronisms, and a tremendous amount of unnecessary detail to the exclusion of the feelings of the (mostly flat) main characters." Library Journal
"Mr. McBride's characters stick with you long after the novel is finished....He is a talented writer and has done a masterful job of peeling back yet another layer of America's dark history." Dallas Morning News
Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers, and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and adventure in bestselling memoirist (The Color of Water) McBride's intricately constructed and impressive second novel, set in pre-Civil War Maryland.
A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride.” cover review of The New York Times Book Review
Outrageously entertaining.” USA Today
James McBride delivers another tour de force” Essence
So imaginative, youll race to the finish.” NPR.org
Wildly entertaining.”—4-star People lead review
"A boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel.” Washington Post
From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Browns antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.
Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henrys master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes hes a girl.
Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.
An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBrides meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.
In the days before the Civil War, a runaway slave named Liz Spocott breaks free from her captors and escapes into the labyrinthine swamps of Maryland’s eastern shore, setting loose a drama of violence and hope among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, runaway slaves, and free blacks. Liz is near death, wracked by disturbing visions of the future, and armed with “the Code,” a fiercely guarded cryptic means of communication for slaves on the run. Liz’s flight and her dreams of tomorrow will thrust all those near her toward a mysterious, redemptive fate.
Filled with rich, true details—much of the story is drawn from historical events—and told in New York Times bestselling author James McBride’s signature lyrical style, Song Yet Sung is a story of tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness
About the Author
James McBride burst onto the scene with The Color of Water, a memoir exploring the author's struggle to understand his biracial identity. A bit of a Renaissance man — he's a skilled musician who has written for the likes of soul diva Anita Baker — McBride crossed over into the fiction camp with the war novel Miracle at St. Anna.
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