One of my favorite past times is visiting used bookstores where I can often find old favorites or new gems. James McBride’s Song Yet Sung is one of these gems. McBride’s first book, The Color of Water, I greatly enjoyed, so I expected the same from this novel. I was not disappointed.
The novel is not your typical runaway slave narrative. McBride visits the point of view of a number of different characters, all whom are involved in the various aspects of the slave trade. The novel provides a loving link to history of how the Underground Railroad was run by both slaves and free blacks alike. Many slaves stayed in their plantations to help the Underground Railroad and Song Yet Sung pays them rightly homage. McBride also throws in social commentary on current “ghetto culture” through runaway slave Liz Spocott’s visions and her horrified reaction to the images she sees. Her reaction is not unlike many who currently dislike the status of some parts of the African American community today.
McBride clearly did his research on how the Underground Railroad was truly run. Expertly detailed in a chapter titled “Spreading the Word,” Mary, a slave, spreads word that her brother Amber, is missing and believed to have runaway. The novel then follows the “message” as it travels through the county, with the White folk none the wiser. The passage was so beautifully written that it reads like poetry.
McBride clearly cares about his characters, history and writing beautiful prose. The pacing of the story moves along nicely with the different points of view and builds slowly until all the characters come together in a explosive action scene. At that point, the payoff is worth it and the reader is rooting for not just the slaves but some of the white characters as well. Because McBride structured his story from a variety of view points, the reader is able to connect and care about the different characters. Each chapter is told in the voice of one of the characters, hence it doesn’t get confusing for the reader. This device that McBride uses is effective in the telling of his story, in the building of the tension, and the revealing the mystery.
Song Yet Sung will be placed among my list of favorite books and one that I would love to use to teach one day.