The Time of Our Singing: A Novelby Richard Powers
A magnificent, multifaceted novel about a supremely gifted -- and divided -- family, set against the backdrop of postwar America
On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson's epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish émigré scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual/p>/b>
A magnificent, multifaceted novel about a supremely gifted -- and divided -- family, set against the backdrop of postwar America
On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson's epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish émigré scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual love of music draws them together, and--against all odds and better judgment--they marry. They vow to raise their children beyond time, beyond identity, steeped in song. But their three children must survive America's brutal here and now. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth grow up during the Civil Rights era, come of age in the violent 1960s, and live out adulthood in the racially retrenched late century. Jonah, the eldest, "whose voice could make heads of state repent," follows a life in his parents' beloved classical music. Ruth, the youngest, chooses a militant activism and repudiates the white culture her brother represents. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator of this generational tale, struggles to remain connected to them both.
The Time of Our Singing is a story of self-invention, allegiance, race, cultural ownership, the compromised power of music, and the tangled loops of time that rewrite all belonging.
This multigenerational story of a biracial family begins with the 1940 marriage of Delia Daley, an African-American amateur singer from Philadelphia, and David Strom, a Jewish-German music-loving physicist teaching at Columbia University. Interracial marriage, Powers reminds us, was still against the law in many American states at midcentury. Delia and David find some shelter in New York City and have three children, all musical prodigies. The almost white Jonah and the very light Joseph go to a private music school in Boston, leaving Ruth, the darkest of the siblings, to witness her mother's death by fire when Ruth is ten and the boys fourteen and thirteen. After Delia's death, the family splinters: David retreats into his quantum physics; the boys become professional musicians and live on the road; Ruth is left largely alone to discover the meaning of her race.
Unlike Ruth, who eventually joins the Black Panther Party, the male Stroms mostly try to avoid the subject of race. Jonah attempts to transcend color by moving to Europe and singing medieval music, written before slavery came to America. Joseph, his faithful brother and pianist, is split between the values and cultural interests of his light-skinned brother and his dark-skinned sister. Ruth, meanwhile, marries a fellow Panther, with whom she has two sons. When Jonah is around, the conflicted Joseph plays classical European music; for patrons of an Atlantic City club, he plays the music from his African-American heritage that would most please Ruth.
In The Time of Our Singing, Powers dramatizes with graceful authority the complexities of an interracial family in the 1950s and the consequences for the family in the 1990s. Delia's arguments with her physician father over her Jewish husband are rich with psychological nuance and cross-cultural subtlety. Ruth's arguments with her teenage son, Kwame, over his future in "gangsta" Oakland provocatively recast Delia's issues of racial identity and personal freedom as Powers stretches the scope of his novel across five tumultuous decades in which the Strom family learns to be functional.
Powers' reputation as a novelistic prodigy stems partly from his talent for structural ingenuity. His novel The Gold Bug Variations, for example, conformed to the pattern of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The Time of Our Singing is more relaxed in its composition, more like jazz. Powers elicits curiosity about and affection for the Strom children and occasionally substitutes their development for plot. For readers who didn't live through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Powers provides helpful background. And he brings his characters to three vividly rendered mass gatherings in Washington: a 1939 Marian Anderson concert, where Delia and David meet; Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, which Ruth and David attend; and the 1995 Million Man March, which Joseph and Ruth's sons attend.
The Time of Our Singing continues Powers' recent turn toward political subjects. His 1998 novel Gain critiqued capitalist enterprise, and 2000's Plowing the Dark was about the military's use during the Gulf War of virtual reality research for smart bombing. While this new novel may appear to be a politically correct attack on white culturethe white European scientist David and his son, the pale Eurocentric artist Jonah, do the most damage to their kin by shirking family responsibilitiesthe black characters, including Delia's father, the proud patriarch Dr. Daley, and the activist Ruth also share blame for their family's division.
In the final line of the classic novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's black narrator appears to address white readers: "who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you." Powers seems to be replying to and updating Ellison's words in a scene in the latter part of the novel that finds Ruth contemplating a question, ostensibly about music, posed by her son: "Not beyond color; into it," she thinks. "Not or; and. And new ands all the time. Continuous new frequencies." The Time of Our Singing is not about black or white voices. With its color spectrum of characters, the novel speaks for a new culture of people who continuously break down these racial binaries. Coupled with Powers' accessible prose, their story is likely to speak to us all.
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Read an Excerpt
The Time of Our Singing
By Richard Powers
PicadorCopyright © 2003 Richard Powers
All rights reserved.
In some empty hall, my brother is still singing. His voice hasn't dampened yet. Not altogether. The rooms where he sang still hold an impression, their walls dimpled with his sound, awaiting some future phonograph capable of replaying them.
My brother Jonah stands fixed, leaning against a piano. He's just twenty. The sixties have only begun. The country still dozes in its last pretended innocence. No one has heard of Jonah Strom but our family, what's left of it. We've come to Durham, North Carolina, the old music building at Duke. He has made it to the finals of a national vocal competition he'll later deny ever having entered. Jonah stands alone, just right of center stage. My brother towers in place, listing a little, backing up into the crook of the grand piano, his only safety. He curls forward, the scroll on a reticent cello. Left hand steadies him against the piano edge, while right hand cups in front of him, holding some letter, now oddly lost. He grins at the odds against being here, breathes in, and sings.
One moment, the Erl-King is hunched on my brother's shoulder, whispering a blessed death. In the next, a trapdoor opens up in the air and my brother is elsewhere, teasing out Dowland of all things, a bit of ravishing sass for this stunned lieder crowd, who can't grasp the web that slips over them:
Time stands still with gazing on her face,
Stand still and gaze for minutes, hours, and years to her give place.
All other things shall change, but she remains the same,
Till heavens changed have their course and time hath lost his name.
Two stanzas, and his tune is done. Silence hangs over the hall. It drifts above the seats like a balloon across the horizon. For two downbeats, even breathing is a crime. Then there's no surviving this surprise except by applauding it away. The noisy gratitude of hands starts time up again, sending the dart to its target and my brother on to the things that will finish him.
This is how I see him, although he'll live another third of a century. This is the moment when the world first finds him out, the night I hear where his voice is headed. I'm up onstage, too, at the battered Steinway with its caramel action. I accompany him, trying to keep up, trying not to listen to that siren voice that says, Stop your fingers, crash your boat on the reef of keys, and die in peace.
Though I make no fatal fumbles, that night is not my proudest as a musician. After the concert, I'll ask my brother again to let me go, to find an accompanist who can do him justice. And again he'll refuse. "I already have one, Joey."
I'm there, up onstage with him. But at the same time, I'm down in the hall, in the place I always sit at concerts: eight rows back, just inside the left aisle. I sit where I can see my own fingers moving, where I can study my brother's face—close enough to see everything, but far enough to survive seeing.
Stage fright ought to paralyze us. Backstage is a single bleeding ulcer. Performers who've spent their whole youth training for this moment now prepare to spend their old age explaining why it didn't go as planned. The hall fills with venom and envy, families who've traveled hundreds of miles to see their lives' pride reduced to runner-up. My brother alone is fearless. He has already paid. This public contest has nothing to do with music. Music means those years of harmonizing together, still in the shell of our family, before that shell broke open and burned. Jonah glides through the backstage fright, the dressing rooms full of well-bred nausea, on a cloud, as though through a dress rehearsal for a performance already canceled. Onstage, against this sea of panic, his calm electrifies. The drape of his hand on the piano's black enamel ravishes his listeners, the essence of his sound before he even makes one.
I see him on this night of his first open triumph, from four decades on. He still has that softness around his eyes that later life will crack and line. His jaw quakes a little on Dowland's quarter notes, but the notes do not. He drops his head toward his right shoulder as he lifts to the high C, shrinking from his entranced listeners. The face shudders, a look only I can see, from my perch behind the piano. The broken-ridged bridge of his nose, his bruised brown lips, the two bumps of bone riding his eyes: almost my own face, but keener, a year older, a shade lighter. That breakaway shade: the public record of our family's private crime.
My brother sings to save the good and make the wicked take their own lives. At twenty, he's already intimate with both. This is the source of his resonance, the sound that holds his audience stilled for a few stopped seconds before they can bring themselves to clap. In the soar of that voice, they hear the rift it floats over.
The year is a snowy black-and-white signal coming in on rabbit ears. The world of our childhood—the A-rationing, radio-fed world pitched in that final war against evil—falls away into a Kodak tableau. A man has flown in space. Astronomers pick up pulses from starlike objects. Across the globe, the United States draws to an inside straight. Berlin's tinderbox is ready to flash at any moment. Southeast Asia smolders, nothing but a curl of smoke coming from the banana leaves. At home, a rash of babies piles up behind the viewing glass of maternity hospitals from Bar Harbor to San Diego. Our hatless boy president plays touch football on the White House lawn. The continent is awash in spies, beatniks, and major appliances. Montgomery hits the fifth year of an impasse that won't occur to me until five more have passed. And seven hundred unsuspecting people in Durham, North Carolina, disappear, lulled into the granite mountainside opened by Jonah's sound.
Until this night, no one has heard my brother sing but us. Now the word is out. In the applause, I watch that rust red face waver behind his smile's hasty barricade. He looks around for an offstage shadow to duck back into, but it's too late. He breaks into leaky grins and, with one practiced bow, accepts his doom.
They bring us back twice; Jonah has to drag me out the second time. Then the judges call out the winners in each range—three, two, one—as if Duke were Cape Canaveral, this music contest another Mercury launch, and America's Next Voice another Shepard or Grissom. We stand in the wings, the other tenors forming a ring around Jonah, already hating him and heaping him with praise. I fight the urge to work this group, to assure them my brother is not special, that each performer has sung as well as anyone. The others sneak glances at Jonah, studying his unstudied posture. They go over the strategy, for next time: the panache of Schubert.
Then the left hook of Dowland, striving for that floating sustain above the high A. The thing they can never stand far back enough to see has already swallowed my brother whole.
My brother hangs back against the fly ropes in his concert black, appraising the choicer sopranos. Stands still and gazes. He sings to them, private encores in his mind. Everyone knows he's won, and Jonah struggles to make it mean nothing. The judges call his name. Invisible people cheer and whistle. He is their victory for democracy, and worse. Jonah turns to me, drawing out the moment. "Joey. Brother. There's got to be a more honest way to make a living." He breaks another rule by dragging me onstage with him to collect the trophy. And his first public conquest rushes to join the past.
Afterward, we move through a sea of small delights and epic disappointments. Congratulating lines form up around the winners. In ours, a woman hunched with age touches Jonah's shoulder, her eyes damp. My brother amazes me, extending his performance, as if he's really the ethereal creature she mistakes him for. "Sing forever," she says, until her caretaker whisks her off. A few well-wishers behind her, a ramrod retired colonel twitches. His face is a hostile muddle, duped in a way he can't dope out. I feel the man's righteousness, well before he reaches us, the rage we repeatedly provoke in his people simply by appearing in public. He waits out his moment in the queue, his anger's fuse shortening with this line. Reaching the front, he charges. I know what he'll say before he gets it out. He studies my brother's face like a thwarted anthropologist. "What exactly are you boys?"
The question we grew up on. The question no Strom ever figured out how to read, let alone answer. As often as I've heard it, I still seize up. Jonah and I don't even bother to exchange looks. We're old hands at annihilation. I make some motions, ready to smooth over the misunderstanding. But the man backs me off with a look that chases me from adolescence for good.
Jonah has his answer; I have mine. But he's the one in the spotlight. My brother inhales, as if we're still onstage, the smallest grace note of breath that would lead me into the downbeat. For a semiquaver, he's about to launch into "Fremd bin ich eingezogen." Instead, he pitches his reply, buffo-style, up into comic head tones:
"I am my mammy's ae bairn,
Wi' unco folk I weary, Sir ..."
His first full night of adulthood, but still a child, giddy with just being named America's Next Voice. His unaccompanied encore turns heads all around us. Jonah ignores them all. It's 1961. We're in a major university town. You can't string a guy up for high spirits. They haven't strung up anyone for high spirits in these parts for at least half a dozen years. My brother laughs through the Burns couplet, thinking to leave the colonel sheepish with eight bars of good-natured cheek. The man goes livid. He tenses and puckers, ready to wrestle Jonah to the ground. But the eager line of admirers moves him along, out the stage door, toward what the prophetic look spreading across my brother's face already knows will be a paralyzing stroke.
At the end of the conga line, our father and sister wait. This is how I see them, too, from the far side of a life. Still ours, still a family. Da grins like the lost immigrant he is. A quarter century in this country, and he still walks around like he's expecting to be detained. "You pronounciate German like a Polack. Who the hell taught you your vowels? A disgrace. Eine Schande!"
Jonah caps a hand over our father's mouth. "Shh. Da. For Christ's sake. Remind me never to take you out in public. 'Polack' is an ethnic slur."
"'Polack'? You're crazy. That's what they're called, bub."
"Yeah, bub." Ruth, our mimic, nails him. Even at sixteen, she's passed for the man more than once, over the phone. "What the hell else you going to call people from Polackia?"
The crowd flinches again, that look that pretends not to. We're a moving violation of everything in their creed. But out here in classically trained public, they keep that major-key smile. They push on to the other winners, leaving us, for a last moment, once again our own safe nation. Father and eldest son reel about on the remnants of Schubert still banging about the emptied hall. They lean on each other's shoulders. "Trust me," the older one tells the younger. "I've known a few Polacks in my day. I almost married one."
"I could have been a Polack?"
"A near Polack. A counterfactual Polack."
"A Polack in one of many alternate universes?"
They babble to each other, the shorthand jokes of his profession. Clowning for the one none of us will name this night, the one to whom we offer every note of our contest prize. Ruth stands in the stage footlights, almost auburn, but otherwise the sole keeper of our mother's features in this world. My mother, the woman my father almost didn't marry, a woman more and longer American than anyone in this hall tonight.
"You did good, too, Joey," my little sister makes sure to tell me. "You know. Perfect and all." I hug her for her lie, and she glows under my grasp, a ready jewel. We wander back to Da and Jonah. Assembled again: the surviving four-fifths of the Strom family chorale.
But Da and Jonah don't need either of us accompanists. Da has hold of the Erl-King motif, and Jonah thumps along, his three-and-a-half-octave voice dropping into bass to whack at his imitation piano's left hand. He hums the way he wanted me to play it. The way it ought to be played, in heaven's headliner series. Ruth and I draw near, despite ourselves, to add the inner lines. People smile as they pass, in pity or shame, some imagined difference. But Jonah is the evening's rising star, momentarily beyond scorn.
The audience this night will claim they heard him. They'll tell their children how that chasm opened up, how the floor dropped out of the old Duke concert hall and left them hanging in the vacuum they thought it was music's job to fill. But the person they'll recall won't be my brother. They'll tell of sitting up in their seats at the first sound of that transmuting voice. But the voice they'll remember won't be his.
His growing band of listeners will chase Jonah's performances, prize his tickets, follow his career even into those last, decoupled years. Connoisseurs will search down his records, mistaking the voice on the disk for his. My brother's sound could never be recorded. He had a thing against the permanent, a hatred of being fixed that's audible in every note he ever laid down. He was Orpheus in reverse: Look, forward, and all that you love will disappear.
It's 1961. Jonah Strom, America's Next Voice, is twenty. This is how I see him, forty years on, eight years older now than my older brother will ever be. The hall has emptied; my brother still sings. He sings through to the double bar, the tempo falling to nothing as it passes through the fermata's blackness, a boy singing to a mother who can no longer hear him.
That voice was so pure, it could make heads of state repent. But it sang knowing just what shape rode along behind it. And if any voice could have sent a message back to warn the past and correct the unmade future, it would have been my brother's.CHAPTER 2
WINTER, AROUND 1950
But no one ever really knew that voice except his family, singing together on those postwar winter nights, with music their last line of defense against the outside and the encroaching cold. They lived in half of a three-story Jersey freestone house that had weathered over half a century to a chocolate brown, tucked up in the northwest corner of Manhattan, a neglected enclave of mixed, mottled blocks where Hamilton Heights shaded off into Washington Heights. They rented, the immigrant David Strom never trusting the future enough to own anything that wouldn't fit into a waiting suitcase. Even his appointment in the Physics Department at Columbia seemed a thing so fine, it would certainly be taken away by anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, rising randomness, or the inevitable return of the Nazis. That he could afford to rent half a house at all, even in this tidal-pool neighborhood, struck David as beyond luck, given the life he'd already owned.
To Delia, his Philadelphian wife, renting seemed as perennially strange as her husband's pallid theories. She'd never lived anywhere but the home her parents owned. Yet Delia Daley Strom, too, knew that the world's relentless purifiers would come after their happiness through any open chink. So she propped up her refugee husband and turned their rented half of the freestone into a fortress. And for pure safety, nothing beat music. Each of the three children shared the same first memory: their parents, singing. Music was their lease, their deed, their eminent domain. Let each voice defeat silence through its own vocation. And the Stroms defeated silence after their own fashion, each evening, together, in great gulps of free-playing chords.
Rambling scraps of song started even before the children were awake. Strains of Barber from the bathroom collided with Carmen coming out of the kitchen. Breakfast found them all humming against one another in polytonal rowdiness. Even once the day's home schooling started—Delia teaching the reading and writing, David doing the arithmetic before heading down to Morningside to lecture on General Relativity—song drove the lessons. Meter markings taught fractions. Every poem had its tune.
In the afternoon, when Jonah and Joey raced home from forced excursions to that strip of playground adjoining St. Luke's, they'd find their mother at the spinet with baby Ruth, turning the cramped drawing room into a campsite on the shores of Jordan. Half an hour of trios dissolved into bouts of ritual bickering between the boys over who got first dibs with their mother, alone. The winner set to an hour of glorious piano duets, while the moment's loser took little Root upstairs for read-alouds or card games without real rules.
Lessons with Delia passed in minutes for the praise-heaped student, while stretching out forever for the one waiting in line. When the excluded boy started calling out finger faults from upstairs, Delia turned those catcalls, too, into a game. She'd have the boys name chords or sustain intervals from the top of the stairs. She'd get them singing rounds—"By the Waters of Babylon"—from opposite ends of the house, each boy weaving his own line around the distant other. When they hit the limits of their boy's patience, she'd bring them together, one singing, the other playing, with little Root inventing spectral toddler harmonies that strove to join this family's secret language.
Excerpted from The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. Copyright © 2003 Richard Powers. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Richard Powers has been the recipient of a 1999 Lannan Literary Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the author of eight novels, including Plowing the Dark (FSG, 2000), Gain (FSG, 1998), and Galatea 2.2 (FSG, 1995). He lives in Illinois.
Richard Powers is the author of several novels, including The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006), which won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.
- Urbana, Illinois
- Date of Birth:
- June 18, 1957
- Place of Birth:
- Evanston, Illinois
- M.A., University of Illinois, 1979
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I'm not kidding! This ranks at or near the top of all novels written any time, any place. OK---Huck Finn probably wins by a nose, but you'll love this book. Richard Powers is obviously an extremely intelligent author, especially concerning music and math/science. Don't be afraid; he writes so well that you'll understand everything, even when you think you won't or couldn't. He writes so well that I found myself having to stop periodically to resume breathing. I would also recommend his other books, especially the Gold Bug Variations (which links the structures of Papa Bach's Goldberg Variations and DNA itself in a way that amazes and delights a careful reader. I would also recommend: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Garcia-Marquez), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Murakami), Specimen Days (Michael Cunningham), and The Dork of Cork (Chet Ramo).
This is a sweeping historical novel of epic proportions, following the fictional lives of a German Jewish refugee physicist who comes to hear Marian Anderson on the Mall in 1939 and meets the African-American daughter of a Philadelphia physician who becomes the love of his life. The lives of their children, all of whom inherit beautiful signing voices from their parents (especially their mother), are a fascinating character study of individuals dealing with the changing racial attitudes of society against the backdrop of American history from the 1939 concert to the Million Man March. It is also a portrayal of the world of classical music, with the two Strom boys entering Julliard and the eldest becoming a renowned singer, first in America and then in Europe, rejecting traditional operatic forms and opting to join the early music movement. If the author is not a musician, he must be a tremendous researcher to have delved so deeply into the musical issue presented here. The author is very skilled at character development, allowing each individual to come alive in a non-linear narrative of history, jumping forward and backward in time to suit his purposes to great effect. This is a truly moving and inspiring novel, dealing with profound issues of racial identity and American life in the 20th century, and it deserves wide readership at any time, but especially now as we are led by our first biracial President.
The magic of music, physics, race, and history intwine. Powers' writing is beautiful and incisive at the same time. The pages fly as you read along on the journey of our country through the journey of an American family. A must for book clubs as you will want to share this beautifully written book as you read from beginning to end.
Mr. Powers takes us on an extrodinary journey into American history and also delivers one of the most touching love stories written over the last decade. I give this book my highest recommendation.
If you have the time to read this 631 page book it is certainly an excellent book, beautifully written but not in a succinct fashion. It has been chosen for our book club but I am despairing as to whether our members can or will read it. It addresses important issues connected to racism as the characters confront their own inability to overcome racism and the effects of racism in others, in society and in themselves. It also attempts to verbalize musical experience which can be rather arduous to get through and is not always successful. Music and singing are however,effective metaphors for the experience of the characters.
I read this book for senior humanities independent reading and it was absolutely beautiful. I remember after I finished reading it, I just sat for about 15 minutes dazing off. I don't really know what there is to say except that Powers does a wonderful job of developing his characters and getting you invloved in the story. I also really liked how he incorporated events in history into this story. If you read this you will be a better person.
I found this book mesmerizing. It transported me completely into worlds I do not know: professional, classical singing, quantum physics, and most importantly, what it was like to be Black in America in the '50s, 60s, and '70s. I only came to the US in the mid-'80s, and even then, as a self-absorbed college kid, so I was ignorant of the period. The Time of Our Singing provided fascinating insights into the highlights of recent American history. The book itself is a song - a lament, at times- overall, a sweeping, entrancing ode. Powers creates beauty in the content, but also in the writing, in the juxtaposition of words. I expect to find this kind of textual music in French literature; I thoroughly savored it in The Time of Our Singing. I highly recommend this book. It is important, enlightening, engaging, and a pleasure to read through.
I saw Richard Powers do a reading in Philadelphia, and it is clear that he is a brilliant and motivated man. This is a greatly textured, luminous novel that will keep the reader's mind awake and alive. Some may find it depressing, but I found it to be thought-compelling rather than saddening. This book continually asks the question, 'Have we, as a [local, national, and global] community, made progress in the area of racial relations?' By a stroke of genius it leaves the answer up to the reader.
I gather I am the first to write a reader review for this book. I am 67 years old and more or less lived through the events of history which are described. I am a trained classial musician. This book was so very depressing! Perhaps that is because it reminds us how little we have learned in the past century. But this book also got me to thinking about the writing of novels in a negative way. What is the motivation of a novelist? What can he tell us that the newspaper cannot? To whom is he speaking? Is a novel more than a long answer to the question 'what if'? Maybe this book should have been a short story.