Book Review: Song Yet Sung by James McBride

Song Yet Sung

In his most recent novel, Song Yet Sung, bestselling author James McBride writes about the tense struggle for freedom along the swampy shores of eastern Maryland in the days prior to the U.S. Civil War.  The story’s theme suggests that there are five directional points: “North, south, east, west, and free. That’s the fifth point.”

The book opens with a gripping scene in which Liz, a beautiful young runaway slave, is fleeing for her life from a group of slave catchers.  This mystical character suffers from a syndrome in which she is periodically struck unconscious against her will with the force of her sometimes disturbing and prophetic visions of the future, causing the other characters to refer to her as “the Dreamer.”  In order to survive, Liz must learn “the code” that is wordlessly communicated along the Gospel Train.

McBride interweaves the lives of many unusual and diverse characters, showing us that people are often more than they appear in this small Chesapeake Bay town, where the weather and the water itself, as often as the violence of the slave trade, threatens to claim the lives of the pioneering oyster-collecting watermen.

This is a well researched book from a historical perspective, providing the reader with a brief glimpse of what life might have been like during this tumultuous time, while simultaneously turning the reader’s attention to the present and to the possibilities of the future.  McBride also manages to enmesh the reader in the frontier of Maryland’s eastern shore, “shrouded in myth and superstition.”

It was not surprising to learn that McBride is also a musician.  Not only is his metaphor of “the song” a recurring analogy throughout the book, but his lyrical prose reads in a way that is almost musical.  This can be seen in his description of the Woolman, a character who seemed at times more myth and legend than real:

“He had a mass of outrageous, thick wild hair as well, gorgeous in its wildness, frightening in its freedom and abandon. He stood among the dark thick vines, branches and leaves with the patience and steady resolve of a tree… Even as the branches and leaves moved up and down, so he moved up and down with them, swaying with the trees, vines, and foliage around him as if he and the forest were one.”

My only disappointment while reading this book is that I did not learn more about the life of the main character, Liz.  I found myself yearning to learn about her in greater detail.  Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part, however.  By remaining a bit of a mystery, “the Dreamer” became less of an individual and more of a symbolic representation of the dream itself, inspiring hope and dredging up wells of intense emotion in others, wherever she traveled.

McBride’s first book, The Color of Water, was a memoir originally subtitled “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” and it quickly became a bestseller.  His second book, Miracle at St. Anna, served as his first full length work of fiction.  This story about four black American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Italy during World War II will soon be made into a movie by Spike Lee.

2 comments

  1. Clearly I need to read this book, having studied both slavery and the Civil War in Maryland!!

    One of the more striking features of the Eastern Shore landscape is the omnipresence of water, not only the Cheaspeake Bay, but its many inlets, swamps, and adjacent rivers. It’s not difficult to see how enslaved African Americans could run away. The place at times feels almost primordial. Sadly there are few locations that commemorate even Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both natives of the region.

    Because Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Maryland, slavery ended here in November 1864. In neighboring Delaware, it ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

    Great post, Lisa!

  2. Robert, knowing the Maryland shores like you do, and as a history professor displaying a passion for this particular part of history, I think that you would be deeply drawn in by the themes and characters in this novel. Go out and buy it today! (If you haven’t already.)

    Incidentally, James McBride came up with the idea of this novel while exploring the back roads of Dorchester County, Maryland. He said that he found himself near Cambridge, overlooking a field with a small sign commemorating Harriet Tubman’s birthplace. After standing in the cornfield feeling “the vibes for a while,” he became inspired. He returned to his car and began writing. According to the Author’s Note: “This book is the result.”

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