So Close to Freedom
SONG YET SUNG
By James McBride
Riverhead. 359 pp. $25.95
James McBride's famous memoir, The Color of Water, was a personal examination of the author's upbringing in a large, biracial family. Looking back at the life of his white, Jewish mother, McBride chronicled a good part of the last century, from the pre-World War II South, to New York through the turbulent '60s, right up to the Clinton era. His first novel, Miracle at St. Anna (which is currently being filmed by Spike Lee), followed a black regiment through turbulent events in Italy late in World War II. It was a book of considerable breadth and character diversity, telling the tales of black and white soldiers, of Italian resistance fighters and peasants, and of Germans watching Hitler's vision die before their eyes.
McBride is just as inclusive and ambitious in his new novel, Song Yet Sung. The book begins: "On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future." With that, McBride places us back in a terrible time in American history and introduces a character that would seem to merit our pity: a slave woman in Maryland, trapped in a sinister system while living so very close to freedom. This is the well-documented territory of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. With them in mind, it's easy to assume Liz is praying for her freedom and the chance to have a family of her own.
But her dreams are not so personal. She has been granted the gift (or curse) of prophecy: "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 . . . 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."
Sound familiar? With that opening to this powerful novel, McBride makes it clear that he is not just interested in staring into an antique, distant past. This past is living. It is linked to the present, and the work ain't done yet.
Liz has taken a musket ball to the head, killed a dog with her bare hands and been captured -- not by "legitimate" slave catchers, but by a criminal gang run by Patty Cannon, an engaging anti-heroine based on an actual person. With the help of her fellow captives, Liz escapes, and from that point the story's diverse cast is stirred into action, with Liz at the center of the storm.
Patty and her gang are on Liz's trail, but they aren't the only ones. Liz's "owner" wants the beautiful young woman back as well. He hires a retired slave catcher of great renown, Denwood Long (a.k.a. the Gimp). Long is a crotchety loner, "a lean, rangy figure in oilskin hat and jacket" with a past full of pain. He is a master observer who reads truth or lies in the motions of people's hands. Sly and winning when he needs to be, he is also icily threatening when that will get the job done faster.
Not everyone is out to enslave Liz. Amber, a slave waiting impatiently to fly for freedom himself, does what he can to help her. Amber's "owner," Kathleen Sullivan, mourns the recent death of her husband and struggles with her own warm feelings for her slaves. And then there is Woolman: "half clothed, ripe and muscular, black as ebony, with pearl-white teeth, his sculpted body shaped and chiseled by years of hunting." He roams the marshes outside of human civilization, a mythic character said to lead a pet alligator around on a leash. He has more than a few superhuman qualities, which he brings to play as he enters the fray.
How do all these characters' stories combine? In a complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web that rises toward a dramatic climax. Mixed in with the action, McBride shows the complexity of his characters' inner lives and dilemmas -- particularly his black characters. The cadence of their speech, the way they interact, the small details of their thoughts, desires, fears and hopes: These the author renders with exquisite ease. In scene after scene McBride shows the many ways blacks worked to aid each other to freedom. "The Code" is part of this, a secret language of actions, signs, symbols and words by which the slaves communicate messages of resistance right under their masters' noses.
The novel does have its weaker moments. At times McBride's exposition seems rushed, as if he's got more information to give than time to give it. His action scenes can feel like stage directions for a film. Some may groan that Liz's prescience is forced, especially as she sees further and further into the future, right up to bejeweled rappers spitting violence and misogyny. And some may point out the convenience of Liz's only predicting a future up to our present. The moment the ink was dry on the printing, Song Yet Sung was being eclipsed by current events. (Liz does not, for example, mention a future in which a black, female Nobel Prize-winning author announces her support for a biracial presidential candidate with an African name.)
But McBride's engagement with the historical continuum provides a new slant on an old subject. He may have set his novel in the 1850s, but he is writing about the hurdles we yet face. When Liz says, "I said I would tell you of tomorrow. I didn't say tomorrow wasn't gonna hurt," she is speaking to us. While McBride may not have his fictional character's prophetic gifts, he does have the ability to captivate, compel and challenge those of us still working to shape those tomorrows. *
David Anthony Durham is the author of four novels, including "Walk Through Darkness," set in antebellum America.