Song Yet Sung

( 45 )

Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

In the days before the Civil War, a runaway slave named Liz Spocott breaks free from her captors and escapes into the labyrinthine swamps of Maryland’s eastern shore, setting loose a drama of violence and hope among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, runaway slaves, and free blacks. Liz is near death, wracked by disturbing visions of the future, ...

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

In the days before the Civil War, a runaway slave named Liz Spocott breaks free from her captors and escapes into the labyrinthine swamps of Maryland’s eastern shore, setting loose a drama of violence and hope among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, runaway slaves, and free blacks. Liz is near death, wracked by disturbing visions of the future, and armed with “the Code,” a fiercely guarded cryptic means of communication for slaves on the run. Liz’s flight and her dreams of tomorrow will thrust all those near her toward a mysterious, redemptive fate.

Filled with rich, true details—much of the story is drawn from historical events—and told in McBride’s signature lyrical style, Song Yet Sung is a story of tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness.
 

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Editorial Reviews

Madison Smartt Bell
Anyone handling such material runs the risk of reprising Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, however effective it was as propaganda, has no real claim to the truth of art. McBride's portrayal of the situation is more lucid, better controlled and in the end much more convincing…Edward P. Jones, who may be the first black American to have written about slavery without rancor, has said that his measured portrayal of the slave masters of Virginia in The Known World was like writing about Hitler from Hitler's mother's point of view. In Song Yet Sung, McBride has captured a version of Jones's dispassionate tone, which can deliver the cauterizing power of anger without the corrosive effects of bitterness. That's a radically new way of telling this old story, and it just might turn out to be balm for a wound that has so far stubbornly refused to heal.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and adventure in bestselling memoirist (The Color of Water) McBride's intricately constructed and impressive second novel, set in pre-Civil War Maryland. Liz Spocott, a beautiful young runaway slave, suffers a nasty head wound just before being nabbed by a posse of slave catchers. She falls into a coma, and, when she awakes, she can see the future-from the near-future to Martin Luther King to hip-hop-in her dreams. Liz's visions help her and her fellow slaves escape, but soon there are new dangers on her trail: Patty Cannon and her brutal gang of slave catchers, and a competing slave catcher, nicknamed "The Gimp," who has a surprising streak of morality. Liz has some friends, including an older woman who teaches her "The Code" that guides runaways; a handsome young slave; and a wild inhabitant of the woods and swamps. Kidnappings, gunfights and chases ensue as Liz drifts in and out of her visions, which serve as a thoughtful meditation on the nature of freedom and offer sharp social commentary on contemporary America. McBride hasn't lost his touch: he nails the horrors of slavery as well as he does the power of hope and redemption. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

McBride's second novel, following Miracle at St. Anna(soon to be a Spike Lee-directed major motion picture), might better be titled Novel Yet Edited: the review copy, at least, reads like a very rough first draft. Its setting-a small Chesapeake Bay town just before the outbreak of the Civil War, a place where the reality of slavery was more ambiguous than in other parts of the country-certainly lends it potential. The mature reader, however, learns very little new about the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, or the feelings of either the oppressed or the oppressors. Indeed, the novel largely seems written for a YA audience. The pace of the action is slowed by implausibility, repetitive and often cartoonish description, fairly obvious anachronisms, and a tremendous amount of unnecessary detail to the exclusion of the feelings of the (mostly flat) main characters. This is particularly disappointing given McBride's poignant 1996 memoir, The Color of Water. Recommended with reservations to public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/1/07.]
—K.H. Cumiskey

Kirkus Reviews
The slave-owning culture of Maryland's eastern shore in the 1850s comprises the world of McBride's second novel (following Miracle at St. Anna, 2002, and the bestselling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, 1996). Recaptured runaway slave Liz Spocott, wounded by a musket blast and chained to fellow runaways in the attic of "trader"-crime boss Patty Cannon, learns "the Code" by which embattled slaves communicate and survive from a skeletal woman ("The old Woman With No Name") and, acting on a chance opportunity, escapes again. The novel then assumes the shape of a series of quests and pursuits. Liz wanders along a perilous route which she hopes will lead her to the Freedom Train, hence northward to safety-accompanied and bedeviled by prophetic "visions" that reach far into "the future of the colored race." The latter are often eerily compelling, but when "the Dreamer" Liz "sees" rap and hip-hop performances, and eventually Martin Luther King's "Free At Last" speech, the novel groans under the weight of forced Significance. Far more compelling are parallel tales: of the Woolman, a gigantic black who lives in a swamp and keeps an alligator named Gar; widowed landowner Kathleen Sullivan, unhinged by sexual longing for her handsome young slave Amber; and Denwood Long, a former slave-catcher lured out of retirement to return Liz to her irate owner Colonel Spocott. While its language is frequently stiff and unconvincing, the book has great compensatory strengths. McBride views the "peculiar institution" of slavery from an impressive multiplicity of involved characters' and observers' viewpoints. He describes emotionally charged, hurried actions superbly, and hemakes expert use of folklore, legend and the eponymous unsung song (which we do eventually hear). In Denwood's grim, fatalistic pursuit of his destiny, McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution and sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner's sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Explosively dramatic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594483509
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 252,973
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, the #1 bestselling American classic The Color of Water, and the bestsellers Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which was turned into a film by Spike Lee. McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.
 

Biography

James McBride's bestselling memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, explores the author's struggle to understand his biracial identity and the experience of his white, Jewish mother, who moved to Harlem, married a black man, and raised 12 children. Readers may not know that the multitalented McBride has another dual identity: He's trained as a musician and a writer and has been highly successful in both careers.

After getting his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University at the age of 22, he began a career in journalism that would include stints as staff writer at the Boston Globe, People magazine, and The Washington Post. But McBride also loved writing and performing music, and at age 30, he quit his job as a feature writer at The Washington Post to pursue a music career in New York. After Anita Baker recorded a song he'd written, "Good Enough," McBride had enough contacts in the industry to spend the next eight years as a professional musician, writing, recording, and performing (he plays the saxophone).

He was playing tenor sax for jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott while he wrote The Color of Water "on airplanes and in hotels." Like the jazz music McBride plays, the book alternates voices, trading off between McBride's perspective and that of his mother. The Color of Water was a worldwide success, selling millions of copies and drawing high praise from book critics. "This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths," wrote Publishers Weekly. It now appears on reading lists at high schools and colleges around the country.

After the enormous success of The Color of Water, McBride felt some pressure to continue writing memoirs, or at least to continue with the theme of race relations in America. Instead, he turned to fiction, and although his second book draws part of its inspiration from family history, it isn't autobiographical. "My initial aim was to write a novel about a group of black soldiers who liberate a concentration camp in Eastern Europe," McBride explains on his web site. "I read lots of books and spent a lot of time researching the subject but soon came to the realization that I'm not qualified to write about the holocaust. It's too much." Instead, he recalled the war stories of his uncle and cousin, who served in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, and began researching World War II in Italy -- particularly the clashes between Italian Partisans and the German army.

The resulting novel, Miracle at St. Anna, is "an intricate mosaic of narratives that ultimately becomes about betrayal and the complex moral landscape of war" (The New York Times Book Review) and has earned high marks from critics for its nuanced portrayal of four Buffalo Soldiers and the Italian villagers they encounter. McBride, perhaps not surprisingly, likens writing fiction to playing jazz: "You are the soloist and the characters are the bandleaders, the Duke Ellingtons and Count Basies. They present the song, and you must play it as they determine."

Good To Know

McBride has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and the PBS television character Barney. He has also written the score for several musicals and currently leads a 12-piece jazz/R&B band.

One of his most taxing assignments as a journalist was to cover Michael Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour for six months. "I thought I was going to lose my mind," he told USA Today.

For a book fair, he performed with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up of writers including Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Ridley Pearson.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bucks County, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Birth:
      1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism

Read an Excerpt

the code

On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.

She dreamed 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 Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lit boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and 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 had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died. This brought her more grief than her condition at the time, which was not pleasant, in that she’d been lying for three weeks, badly wounded, imprisoned in an attic on Maryland’s eastern shore.

She had taken a musket ball to the head at Ewells Creek, just west of New Market. It was five a.m. when she was hit, running full stride on a brisk March morning behind three other slave women who had made a desperate dash for freedom after two days of keeping a hairsbreadth from two determined slave catchers who had chased them, ragged and exhausted, in a zigzag pattern through the foggy swamps and marshland that ran from Bishops Head Island up through Dorchester County. They were nearly caught twice, the last by inches, the four saved by a white farmer’s wife who warned them at the last minute that a party with horses, dogs, and rifles awaited them nearby. They had thanked the woman profusely and then, explicably, she demanded a dime. They could not produce one, and she screamed at them, the noise attracting the slave catchers, who charged the front of the house while the women leaped out the back windows and sprinted for Ewells Creek.

Liz never even heard the shot, just felt a rush of air around her face, then felt the cool waters of the creek surrounding her and working their way down her throat. She tried to rise, could not, and was hastily dragged to shallow water by the other women, who took one look at the blood gushing out near her temple and said, Good-bye, chile, you free now. They gently laid her head on the bank of the muddy creek and ran on, the sound of barking dogs and splashing feet echoing into the empty forest, the treetops of which she could just make out as the fog lifted its hand over the dripping swamp and the sun began its long journey over the Maryland sky.

Not two minutes later the first dog arrived.

He was a small white and brown mongrel who ran up howling, his tail stiff, and ran right past her, then glanced at her and skidded to a stop, as if he’d stumbled upon her by accident. If Liz weren’t shot and panicked, she would have remembered to laugh, but as it was, sitting in water up to her waist, she felt her face folding into the blank expression of nothingness she had spent the better part of her nineteen years shaping; that timeworn, empty Negro expression she had perfected over the years whereby everything, especially laughter, was halted and checked, double-checked for leaks, triple-checked for quality control, all haughtiness, arrogance, independence, sexuality excised, stamped out, and vanquished so that no human emption could emerge. A closed face is how you survive, her uncle Hewitt told her. The heart can heal, but a closed face is a shield, he’d said. But he’d died badly too. Besides, what was the point? She was caught.

The hound approached and she felt her lips curl into a smile, her face folding into submission and thought bitterly: This is how I’m gonna die—smiling and kowtowing to a dog.

The dog ruff-ruffed a couple of times, sniffed, and edged closer. She guessed he couldn’t be a Cuban hunting dog, the type the slave hunters favored. A Cuban hunting dog, she knee, would have already ripped her face off.

—C’mon boy, she said. C’mere. You hungry? You ain’t no hunting dog, is you?

She reached into her pocket and produced a piece of wet bread, her last. The dog edged forward. Sitting in water up to her hips, she propped herself up and gentle leaned towards him, her hand extended. She stroked him gently as he ate, then wrapped her fingers around his collar, ignoring the blinding pain in her face.

—You shy of water? she asked gently.

He sniffed for more bread as she calmly stroked him and tenderly pulled him into the water until he was up to his chest. She tasted warm fluid in her mouth, realized it was blood, and spat it out, edging him deeper in. A surge of dizziness came and passed. With great effort, she slowly slid backwards into deeper water, easing him in, the sound of the busy current filling her ears as it reached her neck.

The dog was eager to follow at first, wagging his tail. When the water reached his throat he began to pull back; however, it was too late. She had him now. Holding his collar, she desperately tried to yank his head into the water to drown him, but the dog resisted and she felt her strength suddenly vanish.

Over his shoulder, through the dim fog and low overhanging trees of the nearby bog, she could see the horses now, two of them, thundering through the swamp, the riders ducking through the low overhanging juniper and black gum trees, their coats flying outward, horses splashing forward. She heard a man shout.

The dog, hearing the shouting of his master, seemed to remember that he was a hunter of humans and attempted a clumsy, snarling lunge at her, teeth bared. With her last ounce of strength, she shoved his head into the water, drowning him, then pushed him away and let the current take him.

She clambered up the steep embankment on the other side and felt hooves slam into the muddy earth near her face. She looked over her shoulder and expected to see a white face twisted in fury. Instead she saw the calm, handsome face of a Negro boy no more than sixteen, a gorgeous, beautiful chocolate face of calm and resolve.

—Who are you? she asked, stunned.

The beautiful Negro boy smiled, showing a row of sparkling white teeth.

—I’m Little George, he said. He raised the barrel of his rifle high, and then lowered it towards her face. Merciful blackness followed.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 45 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Song Yet Sung - A Book for All Americans

    The Maryland Humanities Council chose Song Yet Sung, by James McBride, as the book every Marylander should read in 2009.

    As a supporter of reading and literacy, and as a native Marylander, I felt compelled to read it, particularly because the story is set in my homeland.


    The way James McBride describes the Eastern Shore of Maryland, naming familiar places like East New Market, Blackwater, Bishop's Head, Cook's Point, the Spocott plantation, the reader would presume he was a native - but he's not. Set in pre-Civil War Dorchester County, (birthplace of Harriet Tubman) the story is rich with suspense and drama bringing legendary characters like Patty Cannon alive. Cannon is not a fictional character. She actually lived in Dorchester County, very near the Caroline and Sussex County lines. She was a legendary slave-catcher and murderer, who committed suicide when she was finally arrested. McBride brings Cannon's character to life in Song Yet Sung.


    The tale McBride weaves about the trials of escaped slaves and free Blacks that were captured and "sold down the river" is poignant and riveting. It vividly paints a picture of the Eastern Shore when the Underground Railroad was in operation.


    McBride also links the details of this story - set in 1850 - to future America. The main character, a slave named Liz Spocott (aka "the Dreamer") is captured by Patty Cannon. She soon escapes capture and spends the rest of the story as a fugitive being led by other slaves and free blacks to freedom through use of a "code." Liz had a unique clairvoyant gift that allowed her to see into the future, and see her people in the present day, with their present challenges. McBride shows how complex relationships between Blacks and Whites evolved, and became the relationships of today. His juxtaposition of the race relations of then and now shows that there is still much work to be done towards healing.


    Phoebe Stein Davis, Maryland Humanities Council Executive Director states, "Song Yet Sung offers Marylanders the opportunity to come together around the state in our communities and talk about this beautiful and important novel and the picture it paints of this chapter in Maryland history. ... This is not simply a story of slavery, but rather a tale of freedom, hope, redemption, and identity, with a generous dose of commentary on modern American society."


    The story is a great story for all Americans. If you love America, and her heritage, if you love descriptive settings and compelling characters, if you're curious about pre-Civil War race relations in a border state, or if you've ever visited Maryland's Eastern Shore - Song Yet Sung is a MUST read.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 4, 2012

    Considering the numerous books about slavery in America that I h

    Considering the numerous books about slavery in America that I have read this book has certainly been one of the more enjoyable. The story, while still painful, has a fluidity that eases you into the material. I appreciate how the author links Black Americans future and past.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2012

    Excellent reading.

    Very enjoyable and informative. James McBride is very imaginative, a great story teller; he mixes history with today's world to create a very moving and emotional journey of hope and the search for freedom. A must read for all who want a deeping insight into slavery in the south, and its impact upon one slave's vision of freedom for all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2008

    inspirational

    I would recommend this book as a required reading to all inner city high school students because it is a great reminder of the struggles that black people had to go through but also a realization of what we have become.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2014

    Song Yet Sung

    This is a complex and very compelling story based on life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland during the slavery era. There are many characters whose stories interweave into a complex story about slaves, slave traders, and the Underground Railroad. This is a must read just for figuring out the complex code of life and the dangers that were everywhere.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2013

    Amazing

    This book is a joy that taker the reader on a true adventure. It also provides a vivid picture of that time in history. I could not put this book down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2012

    Kp- TX

    One of the best books I have read. Excellent. You will not be disappointed.

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  • Posted May 31, 2012

    At first I thought this book was going be slow, but after readin

    At first I thought this book was going be slow, but after reading into it the book was pretty good.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2011

    Great Story

    This book was great, I could not put it down! There were some areas where the description of the land did seemed almost too descriptive, but at the same time I could picture each and every character with the amount of details given in the book....

    Thanks Mr. McBride for another great read. I'm officially hooked!

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  • Posted May 24, 2011

    Great series

    Every book is better than the last! I cant wait for #4

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  • Posted February 5, 2011

    Great Read!

    I love all historical fiction and this book did not disappoint McBride is a great writer and this book should be on the school reading list! Loved it!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2010

    other books better

    disappointing read..long drawnout ....didn't hold my interest at all........

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2009

    One State One Book

    Good for book group discussion.

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  • Posted May 24, 2009

    Great Plot

    I enjoyed this book. The main character's "visions" did not seamlessly flow with the rest of the storyline. After a certain point, I began to just skip over them. Other than that, I would strongly recommend this novel.

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  • Posted March 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Historically inaccurate

    As a resident of Maryland's Eastern Shore I was offended by the apparent lack of research on the author's part. He has the area settled by the wrong people (Germans), sets plot points in towns that did not exist during the time his story takes place (Ocean City), and forgoes historic and cultural details that would make his story credible. A much better book is "The Entailed Hat", also fiction, written by George Alfred Townsend. It tells the same story of an escaped slave and the problem of Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, and uses recognizable details to make the story believable. McBride's book could be a better one if not for the distraction of inaccuracies.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    What a great read!

    This book was recommended to me by an associated at B&N. It is a wonderful book. I didn't want it to end because it really made you think about the characters and what was going on. I recommended it for anybody who really wants to be a part of a story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2008

    Geography lesson

    I wanted to like this book but- but I found it somewaht frustating getting the geography lesson of the land in Maryland. There was so much mentioning of the land, thickets, brush, rivers, the way the wind blowed etc. to me-- it just took away from the book.<BR/>The characters were intersting- Amber, Liz, Patty and the gimp. the Woolman was quite interesting. There were times when I thought something needed to happen and it didn't. The book would go off into some long dialougue as to what a person was thinking.<BR/><BR/>The book did make me think-about the free black man at this time. What was it like for him etc. and for that part kudos to McBride for portraying a sampling of what it may have been.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2008

    Very good read

    This book was very interesting, well structured with some very interesting characters. There are alot of characters in the book so at times you have to refresh your memory on the various characters. The story is about the underground railroad of the slaves 'the code' and the experiences that slaves and free blacks have to go through to get to freedom. His literary style is great, he really takes you back into the heart of American slavery. It is a very good book, well paced, page turner. It really shows the heart and determination of black slaves in America.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2008

    A reviewer

    This is one of those books that once you are about 10 to 15 pages into it, you flip back to count the pages and you are happy that its about 350 pages long.I didnt want it to end and couldnt put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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