Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Song Yet Sung

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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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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 nearby. As with many oral histories, legend has mixed with fact, and details about the Code are disputed among historians.

Particularly controversial is the hypothesis that quilts were used to send coded messages, especially since none of the ...

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