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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Print Excerpt

She’d awakened to find herself vastly improved, deathly thirsty, and able to see clearly for the first time in weeks. The constant headaches had receded, and she noticed the overwhelming stench in the room. She took it to be a sign that she would live, for which she felt decidedly ambiguous.

The next time she woke she raised her head off the floor and looked about. She counted at least twelve souls in the room, all asleep, most dressed in rags. She was chained next to a thin, white-haired, old woman, a cocoa-colored soul with a deeply wrinkled face, who woke up coughing and hacking, then sang softly:

Way down yonder in the graveyard walk

Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk

On my knees when the light ­pass’d by

Thought my soul would rise and fly . . .

The words blew about like raindrops in the wind, floating into the attic’s rafters and beams and settling on Liz’s ears like balm. The old woman noticed Liz watching and stopped singing.

“Lord,” the woman said. ­“I’d give a smooth twenty dollars for a sip of that water there.”

She eyed a pot of ­rancid-­looking water behind Liz’s head.

Liz, feeling dizzy, clenched her teeth, grimly propped herself up on her elbows, and reached for the grimy bowl of filthy water. With trembling hands, she held it to the old woman’s lips. The woman sipped gratefully, then reached over and laid a wrinkled hand across Liz’s chest.

“Feel that,” she said.

Liz reached up and felt it. Cold and clammy.

“I’m hurt inside,” the woman said. “­Ain’t seen a drop of my own water, though.”

“Where am I?” Liz asked.

“You in Joe’s Tavern. This is Patty Cannon’s house.”

“Who’s she?”

“She’s a trader of souls.”

“Who’s Little George?” Liz asked.

The old woman stared at the ceiling silently. Her sweaty face, almost waxen in the growing light, hardened, and Liz saw a grimace settle into her lips.

“I never lived—God hears me speak it—a sinning life,” the old lady said. “But if I ever get these chains off, ­I’ll send that nigger to his milk.”

“Be quiet,” someone hissed, “’fore you wake him downstairs.”

The woman turned to Liz, staring intently.

“You know the code?”

“What code?”

“We will rise at sunrise and rest at midnight. All that sort of thing.”

Liz looked blank.

“I reckon not,” the woman said. “You was moaning so much while you slept, I reckon the Devil was throwing dirt in your face.”

“I been dreaming,” Liz said.

“’Bout what?”

Liz hesitated. In a room full of trapped runaways, where an informant would give away another’s life for a piece of bread, there was no trust.

“You ­ain’t got to fret ’bout nobody here,” the woman said. Her hand lifted from Liz’s chest and scratched a line in the dust of the floor, drawing a line between them.

“What’s that?” Liz asked.

“When you want trust, scratch a crooked line in the dirt. ­Can’t no slave break that line and live to tell it.”

“But I ­ain’t a slave,” Liz said.

Around the room, she heard laughing.

“Me neither,” said a man lying in a corner.

More laughter and tittering.

“Pay them no mind,” the old woman said. “­I’ll tell you what: You tell me your dream, ­I’ll tell you the code.”

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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