Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Song Yet Sung

Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
Runaway slave Liz Spocott has been captured by a brutal slave stealer and squirrelled away in an attic with many other slaves. Hit on the head as a young girl, Liz has the ability to dream the future and is soon named "the Dreamer." Soon she escapes the clutches of the evil, legendary slave stealer Patty Cannon and her henchmen (including Cannon's son-in-law, Joe) and she's on the run.

Set in the dark, mysterious, and mucky swamps of Maryland's eastern shore in 1850, the story also involves a widow, her sons, and her slaves; a slave catcher, Denwood, who Liz's master lures out of retirement; and a mysterious man who lives in the swamps, the "Woolman" and his son. Amid the wars over runaway slaves and the disturbing violence associated with slavery were the stubborn, rough-and-tumble watermen who fished the bay for oysters and were distanced from the slave owners and catchers.

McBride, who wrote The Color of Water (which I read and enjoyed many years ago), felt inspired to write this novel after studying the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and much of the book is based on historical events and figures (such as Patty Cannon). Liz Spocott shares the same condition Tubman did (the serious injury to the head resulting in vivid, futuristic dreams), and Tubman is referred to indirectly as "Moses."

Although others urge her to flee north, Liz does not want to leave Maryland (I'm not entirely sure why). She is taught about "the Code," the hidden clues and signals leading to freedom. Many of the slaves, while miserable in their bondage and feeling that their lives had no value, were conflicted about attempting to make an escape. Others involved in helping slaves escape found themselves facing horrendously difficult decisions about turning one slave in to save many others. Some of the whites, too, had moments of moral dilemma, when they wondered whether they were doing the right thing.

I look forward to discussing this book with my book group tonight. McBride gives us a chilling, sensory glimpse into the lives and losses of slaves and the horrors they faced when they tried to run away.

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