Song Yet Sung
Written by the author of the bestselling memoir The Color of Water, this novel is set in the 1850s. Liz, a runaway slave, is hunted by slave-catchers. She has been shot and her situation seems hopeless, but she meets and is aided by a man who loves and wishes to save her. Also, she has a rare psychic gift. Not only does she anticipate the kidnapping of two children, one black and one white, that will shortly plunge the Maryland shore community where she is hiding into chaos, but she has visions of a time when there are no masters and no slaves.
It’s hard to review this novel without resorting to superlatives. The writing is so beautiful and true that it gives you goose bumps. Liz’s dreams of the future exquisitely convey, through the eyes of a time traveler, the wonder and tribulations of contemporary African American life. The characters transcend stereotypes and come alive. Even Patty, a female-slave catcher who embodies absolute evil, is unique, individual, and fascinating. The interactions between the desperate young slave who loves Liz, and his struggling, widowed female owner, decent people trapped in an inhuman situation, are full of nuance and complexity. You care about both of them.
Suspense builds, reaching a terrifying, violent climax that feels inevitable, in which the characters’ ultimate choices are expressions of who they are. The theme of slavery, the paranormal element, and the sheer brilliance of the writing reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but there is nothing derivative here. James McBride creates a complete world on the edge of the Maryland swamps, inhabited by slaves and plantation owners, lost souls, heroes, and dreamers. It is a book to read and re-read, a work of literature to savor.
Early United States