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Song Yet Sung by James McBride


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Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk once said the test of good literature is simple — you want more of it when you’re done. Song Yet Sung meets that test for me. McBride tells an engrossing tale of suffering, redemption, and the enduring imprint of slavery on the souls of both blacks and whites.

The story takes place over a short span of weeks in the spring of 1850 on the remote and relatively lawless Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, where hardened watermen eke out an existence by farming and dredging oysters. Fourteen blacks have broken out of their confinement at the home of notorious slave dealer Patty Cannon, whose gang steals slaves and rounds up runaways to sell in Baltimore. Cannon and her men pursue the escapees through the creeks and swamps, trying to outrace Denwood Long, a legendary but now broken-down slave catcher who has been lured out of retirement by a big reward offered by the owner of one of the fugitive slaves. Their common hunt focuses on Liz, a beautiful, abused woman who has begun to see the future in dreams after suffering a head injury at the hands of Cannon’s men. Word of her gift spreads when she escapes, and she becomes known among the local blacks as the Dreamer. As the white hunters pursue Liz, the slaves and free blacks of the region work in secret to protect the Dreamer and get her onto the “gospel train” that will smuggle her the eighty miles north to freedom in Pennsylvania.

The future Liz dreams is specifically that of the black race in America, and it is not a happy one. She sees — but does not comprehend — the violent and misogynistic messages of rap music, men who shoot each other while “dressing as boys their entire lives,” overweight children who “run from books like they were poison,” and firehoses used against marchers. Before Liz’ escape, an elderly slave woman imparts to her the cryptic basics of “the code” by which the operators and passengers of the underground railroad recognize and communicate with each other. Particularly vexing for Liz — and for readers — is the code’s riddle of a “song [not] yet sung” and the role of the unknown singer who is "the true Dreamer."

The revelation of the singer and the meaning of the song is the biggest surprise in the book — or at it was least for me. I didn’t know the unidentified lyrics that are repeated throughout the story, but readers who are more familiar with negro spirituals or who know the deep background of a certain iconic moment in modern history may guess the answer to the mystery. That answer seems somewhat contrived when it comes, but not enough to spoil the sharply-paced and strongly-plotted story. I found it particularly satisfying how McBride ties together plot lines and characters as the story progresses.

Cannon is evil through and through, but Denwood is tormented by a flickering humanity that grows inside him as events unfold. Liz eventually realizes she has been given the gift of foresight to protect Amber Sullivan, a slave who is planning his escape to freedom and who must be saved so the singer can sing the future song. The story’s sense of magical realism is enhanced by a character called the Woolman, an escaped slave who lives in hiding in the deepest reaches of the swamps. He moves through the thickets like a wild animal, using supernatural physical abilities to carry out a guerrilla war of vengence against the whites.

McBride richly portrays the culture of the watermen of the Eastern Shore and the peculiar nature of antebellum Maryland, where free blacks lived alongside slaves and their owners at the hub of the national slave trade. Geography looms large in the story, which physically compresses a number of locations in the Eastern Shore’s Talbot and Dorchester Counties. Reviewing a map of the southern border of the Choptank River region will help readers appreciate references to the “necks” of land divided by a multitude of long creeks. McBride also compresses time for his purposes: Cannon and her son-in-law Joe Johnson were real-life slave stealers and murderers on the Eastern Shore in the 1820s. Their story is recounted in George Alfred Townsend’s 1884 book The Entailed Hat. In his afterword to the novel, McBride says his Liz was inspired by Harriet Tubman, who suffered a head injury that caused her to fall into random dreams that she said forewarned her of danger.

McBride has a weakness for repetition. This becomes quite obvious with his most unusual metaphors and idioms, such as references to “the Devil keeping score,” characters so trigger-happy they will “tell the hammer [of the gun] to hurry,” and concealed weapons that are “sleeping” in their owners’ pockets. Overall, though, the writing is rewarding. His descriptions are lush, and he reveals the inner turmoil and motivations of his characters with grace and fulness. It worked for me: I want to read more McBride.

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