James McBride’s new novel opens with an odd, startling scene. Liz, a beautiful young black girl, has a dream about “fat black children” smoking pot and walking around “with pistols in their pockets” while TVs broadcast sports stars “bragging like drunkards.”
Nothing too striking about that — except that Song Yet Sung is set in 1850, and Liz is a runaway slave who has been captured and now lies chained to a dozen other slaves in a bounty hunter’s attic. It’s a jarring way to open a book that soon settles into a less sentimental version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom, of course, never had visions of hip-hop quaking the speakers of pimped-out rides.
It’s the first, but not the last, of many surprises readers will find in Song Yet Sung, McBride’s second novel. He made a name for himself in 1996 with his first book, The Color of Water, a memoir about his mixed-race family, then followed that with Miracle at St. Anna, a novel about black soldiers in Italy during World War II. His new novel delves even deeper into the troubled (and tragic) history of blacks and whites in America.
By setting the novel a decade before the Civil War (and two years before the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), McBride examines the many strands of the long fuse that led to the powder keg of secession. The year 1850 also saw the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime for citizens of free states to harbor runaway slaves. Though it’s never directly alluded to, the new law shadows the actions of every character in this book.
At the center of the story is Liz, whose Nostradamus-like dreams foretell a slavery of a different kind: that of a race held captive to music, violence, drugs, and sports. The dreams are an indictment of modern culture — black, white, or otherwise — and eventually culminate in an improbable (though perhaps predictable) vision of Martin Luther King Jr. To her fellow slaves, however, the 19-year-old has become a revered legend on the order of Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman, especially once she incites a group to break out of the attic and flee from the clutches of notorious slave catcher Patty Cannon (a real-life figure who died in 1829, though that doesn’t stop McBride from using her for his own purposes via a mild anachronism).
Liz escapes into the swampy wilderness of eastern Maryland, and from there the rest of the novel involves characters trying to either capture or hide “the Dreamer.” We learn little of Liz’s previous life, apart from the fact that her owners taught her to read, embroider, and dance (she’s also pretty tough, gouging a musket ball out of her head with her bare fingers in one memorable scene). There’s every indication that her master — “thin, nervous, bespectacled” Captain Spocott — sought comfort from her in other domestic ways as well. To recover his “property,” Spocott hires Denwood Long, a tracker known as “the Gimp” for his “oddly disfigured” right leg. Denwood, a man haunted by the loss of his son, becomes the novel’s most intriguing character, a stoic Yankee who in the course of doing his job comes to see slaves in a new light, albeit grudgingly.
His prey exhibits decidedly less ambiguity in her feelings about the two races. Liz, McBride tells us,
hated the white man. Hated his children, his dreams, his lies, his world. If she could have struck them all with a bolt of lightning and sent them to kingdom come, she would have. They live in a world where they are not raised to goodness?.they are raised to evil, she said.
By book’s end, Liz might still harbor hate, but she has also witnessed acts of kindness and courage on the part of white residents of the Eastern Shore. In one manner of speaking, there are no black-and-white characters in this novel. The kindest slave owners here are often condescending to their human property, while those who might appear to be “raised to evil” prove to have a tender spot in their hearts. Song Yet Sung has characters who are every bit as cruel as Simon Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and characters who are as equally pious as that book’s Eva. McBride, however, invests his cast with greater moral complexity — no one is as pure as driven snow or as bad through-and-through as coal-hearted Legree.
Take Kathleen Sullivan, for example. A white widow struggling to hold her husband’s farm together, she grew up with slavery.
She saw it as a necessary evil. Yet, the older she got, the more troubling it seemed. She believed the Negro was inferior — was sure of it — but lately she had taken to reading the Bible, something her late husband discouraged. The more she read the Bible, the less civilized slavery seemed.
The widow will be unavoidably forced to confront the morality of slavery when Liz crosses her path in the journey across Maryland.
By setting the novel in Maryland, McBride has placed the action in a sort of slavery DMZ, a no-man’s-land of both slave owners and abolitionists. It’s also a significant way station on the road to freedom. This area of Maryland, McBride writes, “was a sieve for runaway slaves, a sponge for freedom seekers, sucking them out of the woods of Virginia, North Carolina and points south like a bilge pump.” It was also, not insignificantly, the birthplace of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Suspicion and paranoia fill the air, and slaves are poised for flight at any given moment. While they watch for signs of safe passage (five knots tied in ropes, quilts hung a certain way on the clothesline, a pattern in the ring of the village blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil), some of their owners fool themselves into believing the “darkies” are happy down in their shacks. It’s the kind of ignorance that can only stem from arrogance, the age-old germ at the heart of racism. Other white characters know better than to think the grinning, bowing slaves are anything but miserable. Kathleen’s father asks her, “How can a colored be happy if freedom is only eighty miles away?”
One of Kathleen’s most trusted slaves, Amber, doesn’t know what lies across that border eighty miles to the north, but he is planning to break free just as soon as he can.
The coloreds claimed the North was all pancakes and syrup. The whites claimed it was hell on earth, a place where coloreds were starved to death and turned out to the cold and ice. He was unsure who to believe, yet he knew that wherever he fled, even if he was a stranger in a strange land, it had to be better than where he was.
McBride addresses topical issues like race, identity, liberation, and redemption, but never lets them bog down the action. Song Yet Sung moves forward at breakneck pace nearly throughout, and McBride ratchets up the suspense in several key scenes where the escaped slaves come within a hair’s-breadth of recapture — not unlike the greatest hits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But here we get the melodrama without Stowe’s over-the-top Sunday sermonizing. In a few places, McBride allows the dialogue to come at us like billboards with big messages; but those moments are rare.
For the most part, Song Yet Sung does its work quietly and effectively, reminding us of a sad truth: slavery is the deepest, widest flaw in our nation’s character. The Civil War is still a decade away, but McBride’s characters are already feeling the early pain of being ripped asunder — both from each other and within themselves. As Denwood — the closest thing, symbolically, to white America’s conscience — discovers late in the novel, he is not so different from the slaves he pursues: “He realized with a bit of shock…that their lives were exact mirrors of his, filled with silent, roaring, desperate, human fury and humiliation.”