SONG YET SUNG
By James McBride
Riverhead, 368 pp., $25.95
This a novel in which people say things like:
“-- With all I seen, I don’t know that I believe in God anymore….
“-- Don’t matter…. He believes in you.”
“-- Every truth is a lie. I heard that said. Only tomorrow is truthful.”
But Song Yet Sung rises above its author’s sometimes clumsy attempts at profundity, because James McBride knows how to tell a story. His earlier novel, Miracle at
Song Yet Sung is set in 1850 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place of swamps and oysters, where watermen navigate the inlets of
In her delirium, Liz has one of her prophetic dreams, “of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed … of colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards – every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.”
Liz is known, for obvious reasons, as “the Dreamer,” and what she dreams about the future of black Americans is for the moment not hopeful, though much later she will dream about Martin Luther King Jr. – “he speaks to a magic pipe that carries his voice for miles. … And the people, colored and white, red and yellow, man and woman, they hold hands and weep at his words.”
As she recovers from her wound she discovers that she’s being kept in an attic with a dozen other captives. One of them is an old woman who tells her bits of “the code” – a secret method that slaves have developed to communicate over long distances. But the woman doesn’t tell her the parts of the code outright; instead, she couches them in gnomic utterances: “the coach wrench turns the wagon wheel. … Scratch a line in the dirt to make a friend. … Use double wedding rings when you marry. Tie the wedding knot five times. … And find the blacksmith if you’re gonna marry.” And so on. Liz will decipher much of the code after she and the others break out of their confinement and scatter.
Liz and the others have been trapped by Patty Cannon, who makes a living by snatching up runaways and stealing slaves, then selling them south. Patty Cannon was a real person, although McBride has fudged the facts: She died in 1829 and her house, where Liz is held captive, was torn down in 1848. Patty was said to be a large, handsome woman who could out-wrestle any man and delighted in doing so. In addition to Patty, Liz is also being tracked by Denwood Long, a man known as “the Gimp” because of his bad leg, who has been hired by her owner to bring her back.
There are killings and kidnappings and betrayals in this involving tale of flight and pursuit. Patty Cannon is a marvelously evil villain, and the Gimp turns out to be a man in search of redemption. There’s also a giant, mute, mysterious fugitive slave called the Woolman, who hides in the depths of the forest, having learned how to blend with it. There are so many characters, in fact, that Liz the Dreamer recedes into the background – she’s the cause of the action but not much of a participant in it. But along Liz’s journey, the reader discovers some of the secrets of “the code”: a system of communication based on patterns in quilts, knots in ropes, the way crates are stacked on a wharf, and the rhythms clanged out by a blacksmith on an anvil.
The chief problem with the novel is that Liz’s visions of the future often go way over the top, as in this prophetic image: “his body was adorned with shiny jewelry – around his neck, his fingers, even in his mouth. A thousand drums seemed to play behind him, and as he spoke with the rat-tat-tat speed of a telegraph machine, he preached murder, and larceny, cursing women savagely and promising to kill, maim, and destroy.” McBride, who studied music composition at Oberlin, has let his distaste for the commercialized culture of hip-hop betray him into a sour, moralizing didacticism.
For the truth is, his novel doesn’t need contemporary references, or even Liz’s clairvoyant dreams, to make its point. For he has a great and durable theme: the quest for freedom. Even his white characters are hemmed in by the peculiar institution of slavery, unable to free themselves from the constant anxiety and guilt in which it traps them. On this theme, the dialogue he gives his characters is occasionally eloquent. Here, Liz has told an old man about her vision of the preacher we recognize as King:
“-- If that preacher you seen in your dream was hollering ’bout being free … well, then, he wasn’t free, now, was he? How long that gonna take? What time of tomorrow was you dreaming about?
“-- I don’t know, she said. I said I would tell you of tomorrow. I didn’t say tomorrow wasn’t gonna hurt.”