four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-AMillionNightingalesIn Louisiana at the turn of the 19th century, just after Napoleon sells the Territory to the United States, Moinette, a beautiful, light-skinned "mulatress," challenges her fate as a slave on a sugarcane plantation. Literate (unlike many of her fellow slaves), she decides that no matter what happens, she must remain true to herself. When she is a teenager, she is torn from her loving mother and sold to another plantation. Heartbreak, sexual assault, psychological degradation, and more tragedy follow. But her sheer willpower to escape leads her to understand the true meaning of freedom in a society where French, African, and American cultures clash, split apart, and recombine.
Pantheon. 340 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0375423648

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The reader need not be anxious, as I was briefly, that this is another inspiring tale of a fearless woman’s triumph over evil. The great strength of A Million Nightingales is Straight’s unsentimental apprehension of the no-win system that was slavery, and the subtle ways it was designed—intelligently designed—to pervert every natural feeling, every impulse of generosity, of community, of familial loyalty." Valerie Martin

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Straight has never before delved quite so deeply into an historical context, and the result is unforgettable, a classic, haunting story of love, tragedy, and perseverance. … It seems a bit too lucky that Moinette ends up as the property of a forward-thinking man who needs her to preserve a secret … but the sheer honest emotions of the novel and Moinette’s compelling voice propel the story forward despite the appearance of such an anachronistic character." Connie Ogle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"A Million Nightingales joins a growing literature on the mixed-race experience in America, from Danzy Senna’s picaresque Caucasia to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Straight has given this body of work a historical foundation, a point of reference in the past." Megan Marshall

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"This story could have been a sentimental bodice-ripper or a predictable historical yarn, but Straight manages to find a compelling balance that is both intelligent and heartbreaking. … A Million Nightingales celebrates the individual’s power to create a personal freedom within the most rigid social order." Susan Wickstrom

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Lush passages drip like Spanish moss from Straight’s prose as she takes us through this racially, emotionally, economically and botanically tangled world. … Straight’s novel is about the costly nature of human dignity, and the currencies we’ll use to acquire it: money, defiance, memories, sex, loyalty, even death." Tyrone Beason

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes Straight (who tells the story in Moinette’s words) constricts her heroine within webs of phrasing so self-conscious that we can forget we’re in 19th century Louisiana and believe, instead, that we’re sitting in on a writer’s workshop." Stephanie Zacharek

Critical Summary

Straight, whose sixth novel explores family bonds, slavery, and freedom in a dark period of American history, elicited almost universal praise. Moinette, an intelligent, moving narrative presence who navigates through—even exploits—slavery’s constraints, charmed critics. Straight’s evocative language also impressed them, as did the depth of her historical research—from boot blacking to gory scenes of murdered runaway slaves. (A glossary of Creole and French terms helps.) Only the Los Angeles Times felt that Straight’s historical novel was, first and foremost, a polished literary exercise. (The critic suggested reading more "honest historical melodrama" like Gone With the Wind). Despite this minor criticism, A Million Nightingales is an affecting, powerful story.

Also by the author

Highwire Moon (2001): Award Star California Book Award; National Book Award finalist. In this novel, Straight explores ethnic, cultural, and familial dynamics in a Mexican migrant farm-worker town in California.