Excerpt from Song Yet Sung by James McBride, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Song Yet Sung

by James McBride

Song Yet Sung
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2008, 368 pages
    Jan 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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The hound approached and she felt her lips curl into a smile, her face folding into submission and thought bitterly: This is how I’m gonna die—smiling and kowtowing to a damn dog.

The dog ­ruff-­ruffed a couple of times, sniffed, and edged closer. She guessed he ­couldn’t be a Cuban hunting dog, the type the slave hunters favored. A Cuban hunting dog, she knew, would have already ripped her face off.

“C’mon boy, she said. C’mere. You hungry? You ­ain’t no hunting dog, is you?”

She reached into her pocket and produced a piece of wet bread, her last. The dog edged forward. Sitting in water up to her hips, she propped herself up and gently leaned towards him, her hand extended. She stroked him gently as he ate, then wrapped her fingers around his collar, ignoring the blinding pain in her face.

“You shy of water?” she asked gently.

He sniffed for more bread as she calmly stroked him and tenderly pulled him into the water until he was up to his chest. She tasted warm fluid in her mouth, realized it was blood, and spat it out, edging him deeper in. A surge of dizziness came and passed. With great effort, she slowly slid backwards into deeper water, easing him in, the sound of the busy current filling her ears as it reached her neck.

The dog was eager to follow at first, wagging his tail. When the water reached his throat he began to pull back; however, it was too late. She had him now. Holding his collar, she desperately tried to yank his head into the water to drown him, but the dog resisted and she felt her strength suddenly vanish.

Over his shoulder, through the dim fog and low overhanging trees of the nearby bog, she could see the horses now, two of them, thundering through the swamp, the riders ducking through the low overhanging juniper and black gum trees, their coats flying outward, horses splashing forward. She heard a man shout.

The dog, hearing the shouting of his master, seemed to remember he was a hunter of humans and attempted a clumsy, snarling lunge at her, his teeth bared. With her last ounce of strength, she shoved his head into the water, drowning him, then pushed him away and let the current take him.

She clambered up the steep embankment on the other side and felt hooves slam into the muddy earth near her face. She looked over her shoulder and expected to see a white face twisted in fury. Instead she saw the calm, handsome face of a Negro boy of no more than sixteen, a gorgeous, beautiful chocolate face of calm and resolve.

“Who are you?” she asked, stunned.

The beautiful Negro boy smiled, showing a row of sparkling white teeth.

“I’m Little George, he said. He raised the barrel of his rifle high, then lowered it towards her face. Merciful blackness followed.

They laid her in a corner of the attic and waited for her to die, but her body stubbornly refused. For days she dissolved into and out of consciousness, moaning, her nightmares filled with garish images of the future of the colored race—long lines of girls dressed as boys in farmers’ clothing, young men standing before thousands delivering songs of rage that were neither sung nor played but rather preached over a metallic ­bang-­bang that pounded out of tiny boxes. Meanwhile, as if responding to the litany of odd images, the swelling in her head increased, then changed color from red to brown to purple to an off orange. As the days dissolved into nights and melted into days again, her head and the musket ball seemed to come together in a kind of conspiracy, each trying to outwit the other: Her face swelled here. The musket ball moved there. The face bulged there. The musket ball moved here, neither capitulating, each doing a kind of death dance, with her soul as the anxious partner in waiting, until the musket ball quit the game, pushing its way out to the surface, where it bulged just above her left eye, a grotesque, ­grape-­sized lump. One night, lying on her back, she reached up to her left temple and felt it, just beneath the skin, and dug her fingers into the gouging mound of pus and blood until the awful gurgling mass of flesh popped open and the ball landed on the floor with a sharp ping as she passed out.

Excerpted from Song yet Sung by Charles Frazier Copyright © 2008 by James McBride. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Pengion Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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