Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fiction Review: Song Yet Sung

One of my book groups recently read and discussed the historical novel Song Yet Sung by James McBride, and it led to some very stimulating conversation on a wide variety of topics. This unique and powerful story about an escaping slave on Maryland’s eastern shore in 1850 was intense and engrossing.

As the novel opens, Liz Spocott, an escaped slave from a plantation in Virginia, is being held captive with a dozen or so other blacks in the attic of Patty Cannon’s tavern. Patty is an infamous and ruthless slave trader who is not above stealing slaves from their owners in order to resell them. With a musket ball in her head, Liz drifts in and out of consciousness, chained to the floor of the attic, but gradually becomes aware of the others in the room, including an old woman who tells her “the Code,” a series of cryptic phrases designed to help escaping slaves. In return, Liz tells the room of her strange dreams of the future.

The group manages to escape from Miss Patty’s attic and scatter into the forests and marshes of the eastern shore. Miss Patty and her helpers are soon after them, wanting to recoup their losses, but Liz is also being pursued by Denwood Long, a notorious and talented slave catcher, hired by Liz’s owner at the plantation. Liz encounters an injured black boy, whom she helps, and a giant wild-looking man whom she assumes is his father, who leaves her some food and clothing as a thank you. Liz later encounters Amber, the slave of a poor farming widow named Kathleen Sullivan, who helps her to hide.

All along the way, Liz has her visions of the future and earns the nickname The Dreamer, which makes her even more intriguing. This adds a supernatural element to the novel, as her visions are clearly of the real future – our world today – but as seen through the eyes of a slave in 1850. It’s interesting, and even somewhat humorous, to hear Liz’s interpretation of the future she sees.

The action and point of view switch from one character to another, as Liz tries to elude her many pursuers and a wide variety of people step in to help her. What makes this novel unique among slavery fiction is the many and varied perspectives it offers. All sorts of characters are represented here – blacks, both free and slaves, and whites who are involved in slavery in a wide range of ways. Some, like Miss Patty and Denwood, make their livings with it, though Denwood’s feelings about slavery are more complex than they first appear. Others, like Kathleen, own slaves out of economic necessity but feel ambiguous about slavery. Still others, like some of the people in the local town, aren’t directly involved in slavery but are required to uphold its laws. In addition, this is not the typical fictional depiction of the cruel and wealthy plantation owners (though one of those does make a brief appearance); most of the white people in this novel are poor themselves, barely eking out a living as farmers or oystermen.

These varied perspectives make for a unique and complex novel that shows that the issue of slavery was not black and white (pun intended!) for many people but had many shades of gray. Woven throughout the book is “the Code” and insights into how blacks – both free and slaves – who wanted to help slaves escape used various signals and signs to communicate with each other. The author says at the end that much of this information came from his imagination but that he based the novel loosely on the life of Harriet Tubman and used various sources for historical details.

My book group found these varied perspectives very enlightening – they certainly sparked a lot of discussion. We also enjoyed the setting of the novel on Maryland’s eastern shore, in part because it is local to us, but also because most novels about slavery are set in the Deep South. Maryland’s eastern shore, close to the North and to freedom, attracted many escaped slaves and freed blacks, and the Underground Railroad was prominent there. Our discussion also veered into more contemporary topics, such as Liz’s visions of the future and the disparities that still exist today between the races. This captivating novel provided a unique view of the plight of slaves, with plenty of fodder for discussion, combining history with a touch of the supernatural. It was an all-around winner for our book group.

353 pages, Riverhead Books

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