Song of the Shank
Tom Wiggins was born a slave in Georgia in 1849. He was blind, and also appears to have been autistic—what was once unkindly called an “idiot savant.” His genius was for music. He was world-famous in his time, and various handlers/owners took him to concertize in Europe and all over the United States. Largely absent from contemporary accounts of the Civil War period, “Blind Tom” entertained at the White House before he was ten.
In this lengthy novel, Tom is observed by those closest to him, those who care for him, and those who profit from his talent. Tom himself always remains a mystery, locked away inside his own mind. We discover a few facts—he loved to drink milk and that he was able to translate his sensory knowledge into moving, beautiful, and sometimes terrifying compositions—but we cannot know much more. Instead, the author focuses on the mind-set of this anxious mid-Victorian period, and we learn what it meant to be a slave or to be an owner, to be a poor white or a rich one, and the ways in which racism and class can infuse and color each and every human perception. The writing is poetic and often epigrammatic. One caveat, however—the intrusion of fantasy in the form of an “all-Negro” haven, an island called Edgemere, seemed a philosophical sidestep, unnecessary in this otherwise elegantly conceived literary novel.