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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About the Author
Hometown:Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:1957
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism
Read an Excerpt
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.
Excerpted from "Song Yet Sung"
Copyright © 2009 James McBride.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Song Yet Sung
“McBride keeps the suspense high as he raises troubling questions about slavery’s legacy, the price of freedom and what it means to be human.”—People
"McBride...can deliver the cauterizing power of anger without the corrosive effects of bitterness....It just might turn out to be balm for a wound that has so far stubbornly refused to heal."—The New York Times
"Gripping, affecting, and beautifully paced, Song Yet Sung illuminates, in the most dramatic fashion, a deeply troubled, vastly complicated moment in American history."—O, The Oprah Magazine
"Powerful...A complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web."—The Washington Post Book World
"Engrossing."—The Seattle Times
"Let McBride's beautiful language carry you back to his version of Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1850.... Noble and profound."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Prepare yourself for a thrilling ride."—Essence
"It's hard to imagine anyone being able to write to the caliber of Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones, but James McBride does just that in Song Yet Sung....McBride's characters stick with you long after the novel is finished."—The Dallas Morning News
"A raw and captivating story of a runaway female slave and a slave catcher, both seeking freedom, forgiveness, and love."—Ebony
"Deceptively simple, the narrative is clean, spare, and relentless...Beautiful."—Portland Oregonian
Reading Group Guide
Song Yet Sung is a sweeping examination of the legacy of American slavery. Using visions and dreams to bring antebellum Maryland into contact with modern America, author James McBride creates a story that resonates across generations. Set on Maryland’s eastern shore in the year 1850, the story opens with the capture of Liz Spocott, a runaway slave. Liz has a peculiar gift, an ability to see the future in dreams that come to her with frightening clarity. Peering far off into “tomorrow,” she envisions a world in which black people are free from slavery but imprisoned by violence and vice, where well-fed black men sing songs of murder and worship gold.
Imprisoned in the attic of slave thief Patty Cannon’s tavern, Liz reluctantly shares her visions with her fellow captives. In return, Liz is indoctrinated into the mysteries of “the code,” the secret system of communication used by the area’s slaves and freedmen. The code is both a language and a philosophy, full of esoteric wisdom: the truth is a lie, lies are truth; evil travels in straight lines; the coach wrench turns the wagon wheel. Most important of all is the “song yet sung,” a song to which no one knows the words but whose singer will bring salvation.
Liz’s visions spark an uprising among Patty Cannon’s prisoners, and soon they have escaped into the boggy countryside. Capturing Liz becomes a priority to a number of players, especially as word of the escape spreads and Liz becomes a figure of local legend. Patty Cannon, already feared for her ruthless tactics, leads a posse bent on recovering her “property,” while Liz’s former master coaxes famed slave hunter Denwood Long out of retirement to beat Patty to the quarry. And lurking among the thickets of Joya’s Neck is the mysterious Woolman, a feral black man who moves like the wind and spreads death like the devil.
Drawing on historical events and training a keen eye on period detail, Song Yet Sung is a vivid re-creation of America’s past. At the same time, it also points up the lingering effects of this past on today’s society. Liz – known to her fellow slaves as the Dreamer – knows that freedom exists nowhere in her world, not even in the Abolitionist haven of the North. What troubles her more, however, is her premonition of a black culture bent on self-destruction even after the shackles have been removed. Her only hope in these visions are the words of another Dreamer, one who will come long after she is dead. He is the singer of the song yet sung, the one who will point the way to salvation – and who will one day proclaim his people “free at last.”
ABOUT JAMES MCBRIDE
James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Color of Water. His second book, Miracle at St. Anna, was optioned for film in 2007 by Black Butterfly Productions with noted American filmmaker Spike Lee directing and co-producing. McBride has written for theWashington Post, People, the Boston Globe, Essence, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. He is a graduate of Oberlin College. He was awarded a master’s in journalism from New York’s Columbia University at the age of twenty-two. McBride holds several honorary doctorates and is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. McBride lives in Pennsylvania and New York.