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

“What I need the code for?”

“You ­can’t go no place without it.”

“I ­ain’t no place now.”

“Suit yourself. You think you gonna write yourself a pass and frolic up the highway outta here? Life ­ain’t that simple, and the white man ­ain’t that stupid. ’Course you need the code. You here for a purpose. Little George done shot you and gived you medicine and washed you. You corn on the cob to him, chocolate and pretty as you is. ­Death’d be a relief to you, once he’s done. He’s a thirsty camel fly when it come to women. Every woman in here knows it,” she said.

She looked away a moment.

“Including myself,” she said softly. “Old as I is.”

She looked at Liz again.

“­I’d say you need the code more’n anybody here.”

“What is it, then?”

“It ­can’t be told. It got to be lived.”

“How so?”

“You got to speak low. And ­don’t mind the song, mind the singer of it. Especially the singer of the second part. ­Don’t nobody know that part yet.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means what it say. If you see wickedness and snares, you got to be a watchman to the good. You got to own to your part of wrongness. That’s some it.”

“Why you talking in circles?”

“Ain’t no circle, child. You wanna know the straight way outta here? I’m telling it! But first, tell me your dreams.”


“You tell me your dreams, ­I’ll tell you how to get out.”

Liz lay back and stared at the ceiling. It seemed a fair bargain.

“I dreamed of tomorrow,” Liz said, carefully choosing her words.

The room lay silent. Liz felt them listening. She saw no reason to hold back. She told the woman her dream: about black men in garish costumes playing sport games for more money than any white man could imagine; about Negro girls trading their black eyes in for blue ones; about men dressing as boys their entire lives; about long lines of Negroes marching as dogs charged and bit them; and colored children who ran from books like they were poison.

“And the children’s music, “Liz said. “It teaches murder.”

The woman listened silently. Then she stretched her arms as far as her chains would allow, raised her head off the floor, and spoke to the room.

“I knowed it was true,” she said. “I told y’all, ­didn’t I? She’s ­two-­headed. She can tell tomorrow.”

Liz heard murmurs of assent.

It was nearly daylight now. Through the slivers of light that peeked through the slats of the leaky roof, Liz noticed in a darkened far corner of the room, two gigantic human feet, the largest feet she had ever seen. The immense toes spread apart like oversized grapes, each toe pointed towards the ceiling. The man connected to those feet, Liz thought with alarm, was a giant.

The woman stared at Liz.

“Tell me about yourself” the woman said.

Liz began to tell the woman about the web of relationships ­she’d left behind, the torrent of tears and abuse, the plotting and planning, the hardship of running through an unknown land to an unknown world, but the woman cut her off.

—“Don’t tell me ’bout the cross every colored got to bear,” she said. “I want to know how you come to dreaming.”

“I ­don’t know. I got struck as a child and I fall asleep sometimes on no account.”

“Tell us another dream, then“

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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