three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Song Yet SungIn 1850, a beautiful, young runaway slave, Liz Spocott, is hunted down, shot in the head, and imprisoned in the attic of Patty Cannon, a notorious slave trader. Clinging to life, Liz drifts in and out of consciousness while experiencing terrifying hallucinations of a distant future (the early 21st century). She shares these dreams with a fellow prisoner, who reciprocates by teaching Liz the Code, a cryptic language used to guide runaway slaves to freedom. After a daring escape from the attic, Liz, nicknamed the Dreamer for her clairvoyant visions, flees into the Maryland woods with a vengeful Cannon and famous slave tracker in hot pursuit.
Riverhead. 368 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594489726

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Deceptively simple, the narrative is clean, spare and relentless. McBride’s prose reminds me of the proverbial duck: smooth and tranquil above the surface to mask the furious paddling of novelistic invention and research underneath." David Loftus

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Haunting and suspenseful, replete with atmospheric language and rich, strange detail, Song Yet Sung casts a powerful spell. … McBride has created a vivid world, detailed down to its landscape, weather, social mores, distinctive dialect and community tensions." Jenny Shank

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"McBride borrows liberally from actual historical events and figures to fabricate this engrossing tale, and then emphasizes the implications of past actions by interspersing them with Liz’s recurring nightmares of the future. … McBride’s characters evoke an extraordinary time that spawned ghosts that haunt us still, with the message that if we fail to take responsibility for our actions, we will be permanently mired in despair." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How do all these characters’ stories combine? In a complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web that rises toward a dramatic climax. … 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." David Anthony Durham

Charlotte Observer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"We are introduced here to a dizzying array of characters—too many, I believe, for McBride to develop them fully. Though the story becomes much more compelling as the connections among these characters become clear, it is an unsteady narrative." Emily Seelbinder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Liz’s] nightmares allow McBride to register his disgust at the contemporary violence that blights some poor black neighborhoods, but they never seem to really belong to Liz, who remains a beautiful cipher. She’s not the only character who seems half-formed." Sharon Broussard

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Song Yet Sung pits slaves against slave catchers and ‘good’ slave owners against the innate immorality of slavery in a tale that is surprisingly adventure-heavy yet still finds time to suggest that 21st-century black people aren’t living up to the sacrifices their ancestors made to be free. … [McBride’s] need to make a statement marred his judgment as a novelist." Cherie Parker

Critical Summary

After a moving tribute to his Jewish mother (The Color of Water, 1996) and a novel about African American soldiers in World War II (Miracle at St. Anna, 2003), jazz musician and composer James McBride reaches even further into the past to explore the complexities and unpredictability of human nature against the backdrop of slavery. Based on actual historical figures, including Harriet Tubman, McBride’s novel starts slowly but soon develops into a suspenseful, action-packed adventure. Some critics objected to the blatant social criticism in Liz’s dreams of modern-day African Americans (described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as "frankly offensive imagery and the polemic they clearly represent"), and a few cited flat characters and overly modern idioms. However, throughout this compelling and thought-provoking novel, McBride skillfully weaves his timely message that slavery can persist in many forms.

Also by the Author

The Color of Water:A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996): This remarkable memoir alternates between McBride’s own childhood memories and those of his mother, a Polish Jew who immigrated to America, alienated her family by marrying a black man, and raised 12 biracial children.