Seth: If you went to public school, you may have had R.I.F. in your earlier years. For those of you who didn’t, the initials stand for Reading Is Fundamental, a children’s literacy operation that I knew for giving away books in school. Once or twice a year, all the kids in school would go to the library with their class and be able to pick a few books from a large selection of grade-appropriate books. For me, this was often a treat because I read a lot as a youngster, and I attribute my hunger for books then to my current interest in the world around me. Today, I’m reminding you that reading is STILL fundamental!
In that spirit, there’s a book I just finished not too long ago that you’ve got to pick up. It’s called Song Yet Sung and it’s written by acclaimed author James McBride, who is known for his bestselling memoir The Color of Water and is respected for his first novel Miracle at St. Anna, a historical novel about a black infantry division fighting in World War 2.
Song Yet Sung focuses on real-life slave stealer, Patty Cannon and a black woman she caught who later escapes her attic jail, Liz Spocott. Liz is truly the star of the show. Similar to Harriet Tubman, Liz is a dreamer, and word of her talents spreads like wildfire through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the book takes place.
On a grey morning in March, 1850 a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant. She dreamed 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. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lighted boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards – every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.
That’s the novel’s first paragraph. The story is a weave of several different subplots; Cannon’s slave stealing posse’s own struggle for financial gain; a retired slave catcher with a heavy heart caused by the death of his son whose internal battle of morality is tearing at him; workers of the Underground Railroad and their tireless efforts to bring slaves to freedom using The Code, a set of secret signs, symbols and songs that direct traffic on the Railroad; a white family grieving the loss of a father and their black slaves torn between their love of the family and their need for freedom; and the Wolfman, a black man who grew up and lives in the woods surrounding this Maryland town who isn’t a slave, but neither knows freedom.
Song Yet Sung is a story of reflection, redemption, and a complex and frightening future. But also a future filled with hope. It shows the determination and strength of black who wanted to be free (or help others to freedom) and the kindness of whites who help. But it also shows blacks who help steal slaves and sell free ones into slavery, blacks who are unable to seek true freedom for themselves and the capacity for white to show no sympathy or concern for other humans. Everyone is fighting for or against Liz, and she isn’t certain “freedom” up North is even the best step for her to take.
Song Yet Sung is certainly a story of survival, but also the cry of the author to blacks to hearken back to a “slave mentality.” The book is truly a spectacular read. Freedom, in the novel, is incredible difficult to reach and McBride, in this work, signals that the load remains heavy to this day.
Seth’s Rating: 4 1/4 Brains. Pick Up Your Copy Today. Feel free to get it at your local library, that’s what I did. And if you don’t have a library card, this is a good reason to get one and live R.I.F. everyday!