Synopses & Reviews
A haunting, beautifully written novel set in early-nineteenth-century Louisiana: the tale of a slave girl's journey emotional and physical from captivity to freedom.
Susan Straight has been called "a writer of exceptional gifts and grace" (Joyce Carol Oates). In A Million Nightingales she brings those gifts to bear on the story of Moinette, daughter of an African mother and a white father she never knew. While her mother cares for the plantation linens, Moinette tends to the master's daughter, which allows her to eavesdrop on lessons. She also learns that she is property, and at fourteen she is sold, separated from her mother without a chance to say goodbye. Heartbroken and terrified, and with a full understanding of what she will risk, Moinette begins almost immediately to prepare herself for the moment when she will escape.
It is Moinette's own voice that we hear bright, rhythmic, observant, and altogether captivating as she describes her journey through a world of brutality, sexual violence, and loss. Quick to see the patterns of French, American, and African life play out around her, Moinette makes her way from sugarcane fields through mysterious bayous to the streets of Opelousas, where the true meaning of freedom emerges from the bonds of love.
An uncommonly rich novel, brimming with event and character, A Million Nightingales is a powerful confirmation of the remarkable novelist we have in Susan Straight.
"Straight's book is a deep consideration of the servitude all women experienced then...her novel is, besides, a powerful and moving story, written in language so beautiful you can almost believe the words themselves are capable of salving history's wounds." New York Times
"From the first beautiful sentence, I felt transported to a world as vivid as the one outside my window. Moinette is one of those rare characters who enlarges both our sense of history and our humanity." Judith Freeman, author of Red Water
"In all of her novels, Susan Straight has given voice to characters whose struggles for dignity and love have been fought on the twentieth-century battleground of race; with A Million Nightingales she digs even deeper into our common ground. But it is love and humanity, not race, that ultimately gives such wrenching power to A Million Nightingales a beautiful, redemptive novel." Kate Moses, author of Wintering
"Poetic but fierce, this is Susan Straight's most ambitious and successful novel yet." Vendela Vida, author of And Now You Can Go
Haunting and beautifully written, this novel of 19th-century Louisiana is the tale of a slave girl's journey emotional and physical from captivity to freedom.
From National Book Award finalist Susan Straight comes a haunting historical novel about a Louisiana slave girl's perilous journey to freedom.Daughter of an African mother and a white father she never knew, Moinette is a house maid on a plantation south of New Orleans. At fourteen she is sold, separated from her mother without a chance to say goodbye. Bright, imaginative and well aware of everything she risks, Moinette at once begins to prepare for an opportunity to escape. Inspired by a true story, A Million Nightingales portrays Moinettes experience-and the treacherous world she must navigate-with uncommon richness, intricacy, and drama.
About the Author
Susan Straight's novels include I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, The Gettin Place and Highwire Moon, which was a finalist for The National Book Award. Her essays have appeared in Harper's, Salon.com, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, and on NPR's All Things Considered, as well as in women's magazines such as Real Simple and Family Circle. Her short stories have appeared in McSweeney's and Zoetrope, among other publications. Among her honors and awards are the California Book Prize, a Lannan Foundation Award, A Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Short Story Award. Straight was born in Riverside and lives there with her three daughters.
Reading Group Guide
1. A Million Nightingales
is set in Louisiana just after the territory was purchased by the United States. How do the history, culture, and demographics set the region apart from the rest of the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century? Why is it a particularly apt setting for the story Straight tells?
2. Discuss the various ways whites and blacks regard Moinette and other people of mixed blood. Consider, for example, Christophes mockery of Moinette [p. 5]; Marie- Thérèses reaction to Heras questions [p. 13]; the conversation between Msieu Antoine and Madame de la Rosière [p. 138]; the attitudes of both Pélagie and Monsieur Ebard when Moinette is forced to spend the evening with him [p. 158]. What do these incidents–and others throughout the book–reveal about factors that influence the characters opinions about race? In what ways are they affected by their cultural backgrounds and personal experiences?
3. How do Moinette, Marie-Thérèse, and the other slaves hold on to their individuality in a world that considers them little more than property? How do the ties they form with one another reflect both the tentativeness of their lives and the human need for connection? What specific incidents illustrate the ways slaves circumvented the rules–and avenged the humiliations and cruelties–of the plantation system?
4. In explaining why she doesnt sleep in a bed, Marie-Thérèse says, “It is frightening to be so rested” [p. 15]. How does Moinette incorporate this warning in her own life? Does it help her survive the many hardships she faces? What are the emotional repercussions? In what ways is Moinette touched and guided by Marie-Thérèses other lessons, especially her stories about her own past and her retelling of various Senegalese legends?
5. What insights does A Million Nightingales offer into white society and the values that shape it? What is the status of women within the plantation households? Citing specific examples, do the women tend to be more or less sympathetic to the slaves than the men? How does Straight use the relationships between white men and women to illustrate the fundamental flaws in the slave-based economy? Discuss, for example, the wider ranging implications of Céphalines acknowledgment that “My task is to make money by marrying”[p. 51] and Pélagies acceptance of the fact that despite her beauty and social standing, without a dowry she is unlikely to marry successfully [p. 176177].
6. After she is sold away from her mother, Moinette vows, “I would never belong to anyone. I would never love anyone” [p. 132]. Does her rejection of the possibility of love make her life more or less difficult? Do her reactions to the expressions of love she sees between men and women, and between mothers and children [p. 163, for example], confirm or belie the reasoning that motivated her to make her vow?
7. How does the birth of her son, Jean-Paul, simultaneously liberate and constrain Moinette? Unlike her mother, Moinette is forced to leave her infant in the care of others. What are the emotional consequences for both mother and son of this enforced separation? Is it only external circumstances that make it difficult for Moinette to form a bond with her son as strong as the one she had with her mother?
8. Discuss Moinettes rejection of Hervé Richard and the chance to escape [p. 203]. Is her choice instinctual, one that any mother would make? In what respects does it represent the convergence of Moinettes real-life experiences and the inner life shes created? Does it mark a psychological turning point for her?
9. When she is taken to Opelousas, Moinette declares, “I hated Msieu Antoine. I had not hated the Bordelons . . . . I had not hated the de la Rosières” [p. 212]. What accounts for the vehemence of her feelings about her new master? What does it convey about Moinettes sense of self-awareness and her deepening understanding of and antipathy to the world she lives in?
10. In addition to the day-to-day freedom he allows Moinette, what distinguishes Msieu Antoine from her previous owners? How would you describe the relationship that evolves between the two of them? To what extent is it a pragmatic arrangement that protects them from public scrutiny and questions? Even before Msieu Antoine grants Moinette her freedom [p. 282], what indications are there that they understand one another in an intimate, perhaps surprising, way?
11. The title of the novel comes from a song Jonah Greene remembers his grandmother singing [p. 285]. Why does Straight choose Greene, a Jew and a homosexual, to speak these words?
12. Greene and Tretite are both sharply critical of Moinettes purchase of a young boy [p. 285]. Do you share their points of view or do you think Moinettes act can be justified? Why does Greene lend Moinette money to buy her own son, even though it makes him “feel infected” [p. 290]? Does a world built on injustice and the oppression and dehumanization of whole groups of people necessitate the suspension conventional morality? Does Moinettes purchase of her son, and subsequently, of two young girls, represent an alternative moral code, one that draws on the most basic ideals of human decency?
13. In the course of the novel several people, black and white, male and female, become Moinettes mentors or protectors. How does Moinette decide which people to trust? What qualities help her gain the trust or admiration of others? Does she knowingly manipulate the impression she makes on people in order to gain their favor or protect herself? What, if anything, do the people who help her gain from their relationships with Moinette?
14. There are several recurrent symbols into A Million Nightingales. Looking at various passages [pp. 6, 50, 59, 136, among others], discuss the significance of animal imagery. Blood is another potent symbol in the novel. How do literal, as well as metaphorical, references to blood underline the themes and the impact of the novel? The word “passage” occurs frequently in Moinettes descriptions and musings. Why does Moinettes use of this word resonate beyond her immediate story?
15. Is A Million Nightingales a story of triumph? Is it a political and/or feminist novel? Did it change some of your beliefs about slavery? Which scenes did you find the most upsetting and why? Were you surprised by the intimacy and genuine affection in several of the relationships between slaves and owners Straight depicts?
16. What does A Million Nightingales share with–and how does it differ from–other works about the African American experience you have read? What insights does it give you on the legacy of slavery in this country? In what ways is its message relevant today?
17. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Can A Million Nightingales be read as a female version of the same journey? If so, how does Straight, a white women writing in the twenty-first century, achieve this? Discuss, for example, Moinettes tone and the language she uses; the evocative descriptions of various rural and urban settings; the historical facts (the restrictions spelled out in the Slave Code, for example); and cultural customs and biases (French, American, and African) Straight weaves into the narrative.
Read an exclusive essay by Susan Straight