Song Yet Sung is my third book by James McBride and the first book of fiction. McBride is an interesting author. He is a journalist and jazz musician by background, but has written several novels including a National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird.
Song Yet Sung follows a young Black slave not long before the Civil War as she escapes her owner (who wants her as his in-house sex slave) and attempts to leave Maryland for the North.
There is a hint of magical realism to this book like the more recent Underground Railroad. Liz, the protagonist, has dreams that are a result of being shot in the head, which compounded an earlier head injury. The dreams of the future give her a reputation, but the dreams are not of a wonderful future, but of a scary-to-her future. The book opens with these lines:
On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. 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. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lighted boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, 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.
The novel is a bit meandering. I was frustrated with it at times. While it had beautiful evocative language and complex characters, there was a lot of waiting. Which is probably accurate to the situation of the underground railroad. The description of people that were hired to hunt slaves, more for the terror they caused current and runaway slaves than the actual capital value of the slaves seemed accurate. The complicated relationships that some slaves had to some masters and their families seemed accurate as well. Although the reality of Liz running away rather than submit herself to regular rape was also quite accurate as well. As did the complications created for slaves with family; freedom was desired but with each additional familial connection there was more difficulty escaping and more to leave behind.
This was a solid novel that I am glad I read even though I did not love it. McBride can write but the last two books have felt like he could have done more than he actually accomplished. I will probably read his Good Lord Bird at some point before the end of the year.