Summary and book reviews of Song Yet Sung by James McBride

Song Yet Sung

By James McBride

Song Yet Sung
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2008,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2009,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

Nowhere has the drama of American slavery played itself out with more tension than in the dripping swamps of Maryland's eastern shore, where abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, born less than thirty miles apart, faced off against nefarious slave traders in a catch-me-if-you-can game that fueled fear and brought economic hardship to both white and black families. Trapped in the middle were the watermen, a group of America's most original and colorful pioneers, poor oystermen who often found themselves caught between the needs of rich plantation owners and the roaring Chesapeake, which often claimed their lives.

The powerful web of relationships in a small Chesapeake Bay town collapses as two souls face off in a gripping page-turner. Liz Spocott, a young runaway who has odd dreams about the future of the colored race, mistakenly inspires a breakout from the prison attic of a notorious slave thief named Patty Cannon. As Cannon stokes revenge, Liz flees into the nefarious world of the underground railroad with its double meanings and unspoken clues to freedom known to the slaves of Dorchester County as "The Code." Denwood Long, a troubled slave catcher and eastern shore waterman, is coaxed out of retirement to break "The Code" and track down Liz.

Filled with rich history-much of the story is drawn from historical events-and told in McBride's signature lyrical storytelling style, Song Yet Sung brings into full view a world long misunderstood in American fiction: how slavery worked, and the haunting, moral choices that lived beneath the surface, pressing both whites and blacks to search for relief in a world where both seemed to lose their moral compass. This is a story of tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness.

Excerpt
Song Yet Sung

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.

Liz had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died. This brought her more grief...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
INTRODUCTION

Song Yet Sung is a sweeping examination of the legacy of American slavery. Using visions and dreams to bring antebellum Maryland into contact with modern America, author James McBride creates a story that resonates across generations. Set on Maryland’s eastern shore in the year 1850, the story opens with the capture of Liz Spocott, a runaway slave. Liz has a peculiar gift, an ability to see the future in dreams that come to her with frightening clarity. Peering far off into “tomorrow,” she envisions a world in which black people are free from slavery but imprisoned by violence and vice, where well-fed black men sing songs of murder and worship gold.

Imprisoned in the attic of slave thief Patty Cannon’s...
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Reviews

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I found Song Yet Sung such a good, old-fashioned read - dramatic plot, broad characters, redemptive themes - that I wanted it to be perfect. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few facile conclusions and implausible resolutions, and the central dream motif becomes heavy-handed as the novel progresses. Still, so engaging are its many merits that choosing to forgive its minor flaws offers the possibility of an up-all-night read that runs much deeper than the usual fare.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Sharon Broussard

[T]his book sings when McBride keeps to rough, colorful language .... Too bad that in 360 pages, McBride's shallowly written characters don't make us care.

Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune - Cherie Parker

McBride has wrought an action-packed, romantic and suspenseful drama of slave times .... Although Song Yet Sung is ostensibly about slave times, Cosby's rant against the morals and tastes of the hip-hop generation are implicit throughout .... 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.

Washington Post - David Anthony Durham

In a complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web that rises toward a dramatic climax. Mixed in with the action, McBride shows the complexity of his characters' inner lives and dilemmas -- particularly his black characters .... The novel does have its weaker moments. At times McBride's exposition seems rushed, as if he's got more information to give than time to give it. His action scenes can feel like stage directions for a film ....While McBride may not have his fictional character's prophetic gifts, he does have the ability to captivate, compel and challenge those of us still working to shape those tomorrows.

Entertainment Weekly - Troy Patterson

[T]ends to spiral into irrelevance ... undermining its textured take on history and its re-creation of how blacks aided fugitives. B

San Francisco Chronicle - Bob Blaisdell

Song Yet Sung, about slavery in 1850 on the swampy coastal reaches of Maryland, is grander and more ambitious and sentimental than the previous two books. Anyone looking for trendy fiction from the 50-year-old author will be annoyed; this is period lit-fic, and the research, as in Miracle at St. Anna, is usually so well digested and trustworthily presented that it's inconspicuous.

Library Journal

The pace of the action is slowed by implausibility, repetitive and often cartoonish description, fairly obvious anachronisms, and a tremendous amount of unnecessary detail to the exclusion of the feelings of the (mostly flat) main characters.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] thoughtful meditation on the nature of freedom and...sharp social commentary on contemporary America. McBride hasn't lost his touch: he nails the horrors of slavery as well as he does the power of hope and redemption.

Kirkus Reviews

McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution and sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner's sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Explosively dramatic.

Reader Reviews
Kate O'Donnell

Good dreams and live nightmares
The first page offered surprising futuristic ideas, compelling me to continue reading. However, as soon as the author referred to the "eastern shore" not capitalizing E and S, I had my doubts but was willing to allow for his choice of ...   Read More

Beverly

Song Yet Sung
I recently read this book over a two day period. As a lover of historical fiction I always enjoy a story that takes me to a different place. This time I was taken to the Maryland Eastern Shore of the 1850's. We learn about this self contained ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Underground Railway Secret Code

Quilts hung out in a rainstorm, barrels stacked in careful sequence, boats tied to the dock with five knots facing one direction, songs of freedom and warning, a blacksmith's hammer ringing out in an undetectable sequence; all are evidence of the secret codes of the Underground Railroad: cryptic communications used to facilitate the safe passage of escaped slaves. The Code is central to Song Yet Sung, it's the mysterious, rhythmic backbone of the story, as much a mystery to the main character as it is to the reader. Much of the Code consisted of seemingly innocuous words or phrases that held greater meaning, e.g.: "The wind blows from the south today" warned that slave hunters were ...

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