“On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.” These ominous words open James McBride’s novel, Song Yet Sung, which takes place in and about the eastern waterways of pre-Civil War Maryland. Does Liz Spocott dream of her freedom, a freedom that we know will be hers in the not-too-distant future? No, Liz is dreaming all the way into the Twenty-first Century. She is dreaming of “Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes.” Not pleasant, indeed.
James McBride has a knack for taking large pieces of history (slavery, the Underground Railroad) and making them his own by zooming in on the lives of his characters who populate this history. The shadow of Harriet Tubman is never far away from Liz, but Liz is clearly a character of McBride’s imagination and never intended to be Tubman. This is Liz‘s (also known as “the Dreamer”) story. It is also the story of Amber, the young slave who loves her and is willing to risk his own plans of escape to protect her.
The strengths of McBride’s storytelling lie in his ability to give us unforgettable settings (I think I could go to the backwaters in Dorchester County and find the tree in which Liz was hidden), characters you are not likely to meet except in his stories, and dialogue that musically moves from our eyes to our ears (not surprising, as McBride is an accomplished musician and composer).
McBride has written a fast-paced narrative of slavery, murder, kidnapping, mystery and always the hope of freedom. Liz, along with others, has escaped from a ruthless slave hunter and is on the run. She has a head wound and suffers from sleeping seizures and visions. Her visions haunt her and all whose lives are touched by her, including, dear reader, your own.
This is not a novel set in the romanticized antebellum South. There’s no cotton picking, no wet nursing, no jumping the broom, or any other images that make the myth of slavery palatable to generations of white readers and moviegoers. The eastern waterways of Dorchester County were good for the oystermen, while its swamps and forests made ideal hiding for runaway slaves. It is a setting where free blacks live a stone’s throw from those enslaved and where runaway hunters live a dark, unforgiving life of their own enslavement.
With a high price on her head, Liz is hunted down like the prey she has been since birth. But Amber, the young and trusted slave of an Oysterman’s widow, risks everything to protect this strange and beautiful “Dreamer.” And there is the Code, that secret language of communication for slaves brave enough to seek freedom. It is the blacksmith’s hammer, swung rhythmically upon his anvil, that rings out the code of the Underground Railroad. Cruelty and dying take place before we know if the kidnapped white boy is found, if the Woolman’s sick son will heal, or if Amber succeeds in bringing Liz to freedom. We know the Dreamer discovers the secrets of the old Woman With No Name, the woman who first told her of the Code.
“For even with her own heart roaring with newfound thanks, she knew she would never understand what it felt like to say good-bye to the one you loved by the bank of a creek, watching the sun rise, holding hands, dying unencumbered, beholden to no one, without even a name.” This reader, for one, is beholden to McBride for his own vision, talent and generosity to share it.