Let me begin by saying that James McBride is a fine writer. With Song Yet Sung, he was able to weave gender, race, class, human emotions, and geography so beautifully that readers get a colorful yet moving portrait of what it must have been like living as a slave in the eastern part of Maryland in the mid-1800s.
Song Yet Sung’s main character is Liz Spocott, a runaway slave, who was running away from the attentions of her abusive master. When we first meet her, Liz had been shot in the face, and ends up chained in an attic of a tavern belonging to Miss Patty Cannon, a notorious slave stealer who also picks up runaways and sells them to slave owners in the south. Liz comes to be known as “the dreamer,” because she has prophetic visions of the future, which come to her in dreams. While barely conscious in the attic, an older slave woman tells her bits and pieces of “the code,” an intricate set of signals and words by which slaves can communicate and which may also pave the way to freedom. Eventually, because of Liz’s daring and Big Linus’ help, all of the captives break away from the attic, and Patty Cannon decides to go after them to recoup her monetary losses. But there’s also another person who is hired by Liz’s former owner, Denwood, to track her down, so the odds against Liz have now been stacked higher – even for those who make the mistake of helping her. It is only while she is on the run that she begins to understand the code, and she realizes, with the help of her dreams (visions of what freedom – or the lack of it – means in the future for slavery’s descendants) that it is not yet complete.
The novel brings to fore questions such as: What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be human? What does loyalty mean? How far will people go for money?
What really sticks out in this novel though is the notion that no one – even those remotely connected with slavery and earning from it – is absolutely free. For example, Denwood, the white slave tracker hired by Liz’s owner has his own reasons for doing what he does. He was feared by most but when his son died and his wife left him shortly after, he himself quite the slave tracking business, withdrew from society and decided to live life in remorseful seclusion. Miss Kathleen, the owner of the slave who helped Liz, is tied to her land and wholly dependent on her slaves for the upkeep of her estate after the death of her husband. Even the feared villain Miss Patty is heavily dependent on slavery for her lifestyle and survival.
Overall, this was a fine read, one that I can definitely recommend. I stayed up pretty much through the night to finish it. James McBride is now on my list of must-read contemporary authors.
What are you feeding your mind these days, Loves?
Up next: Game of Thrones by George R. Martin