Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Review: Song Yet Sung by James McBride
The Book: Song Yet Sung by James McBride author of the The Color of Water is the story of Liz Spocott a young runaway slave. Liz known as "the dreamer" because of her constant dreams of the future, accidently leads a breakout from slave thief Patty Cannon. Alone in the Wilderness of Maryland Liz learns "the code" and begins her perilous journey of survival, as she attempts to out run slave catchers and seeks help and refuge from unlikely sources along the way using "the code" as a means of communication and survival as she moves along the intricate web of the underground railroad.
I picked this book because of my interest in the history of slavery and the underground railroad. According to McBride Song Yet Sung is a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman and questions surrounding the mystery of how exactly the underground railroad worked. What resulted from those questions are this book where McBride creates a fascinating and subtle means of communication for slaves to speak to one another without words.
What I thought: I had a hard time getting into this book. It took me about 50 pages before I felt fully involved and connected to the story. A lot of the opening pages were confusing for me to understand and I often would read a chapter and then stop for the night. That said I'm so glad I hung in there because once the background pieces were in place I couldn't get enough of the book. The confusing and nonsensical uttering of an old woman to runaway Liz, suddenly came alive and made sense as the narrative unfolded.
One of the greatest things about this book is the language. McBride has a way with words and throughout the book with simple dialogue and his use of prose gets at the complicated feelings and emotions for those on all sides of slavery. The naming of white privilege, "Amber loved him for that, his innocent, his purity and wondering. The boy was still years away from learning the arrogance and impudence of being white. That would come soon enough" (122).
The dehumanizing effects of slavery on the lives of the many men and women, "It's me. I ain't never going to be the man I should be because of how I'm born. When you're born as another man's property, you're raised to that. And whatever you think of yourself, you always come back to how the white man see you" (203).
The complicated emotions on the part of some of the slave owners and slave catchers. and the importance or God, faith and religion in lives of many slaves.
-But I don't know who I am.
-Well, there it is, he said ruefully. That's a problem, ain't it. If you don't know who you are, child, I'll tell you: you's a child of God
-With all I seen, I don't know that I believe in God anymore, she said.
-Don't matter, the old man said. He believe in you. (283).
McBride captures all of this and more throughout the narrative. I especially loved the ending of the book. The ways in which visions of the future and those Liz encounters along the way come full circle. That piece of the book made it even better. A brilliant book.
Although it was a slow start the rest of the book more than makes up for it, especially since the beginning pieces are so necessary for understanding the rest of the book. I can't recommend this book enough. If for nothing else the compelling language and emotions that truly get at the complexity of race relations throughout our American history and our present day.