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SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT by Alan Cheuse Kirkus Star


by Alan Cheuse

Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4022-4299-1
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

An imaginative, multigenerational exploration of the world of Southern slavery in the closing days of the “peculiar institution.”

The Jews, famously, knew slavery in Egypt. Some of them knew what it was like to drive slaves, too, whence the premise of this latest novel by NPR commentator and writer Cheuse (To Catch the Lightning, 2008, etc.). Nathaniel Pereira, of Sephardic/Dutch descent and a proud New Yorker, is dreaming of his grand tour to the Continent when fate intervenes in the form of some necessary business, when his father dispatches him to the South to check on the family holdings in not cotton or tobacco but rice, “Southern rice to feed the belly of the northern nation.” Ominously but usefully, father then provides his young son with a pistol. The 1,000-acre piedmont plantation in question is big enough to hide all kinds of mystery, and there’s plenty to be had, not least because—well, let us say that bloodlines have become a bit confused over the generations. Nathaniel himself falls sway to the charms of an enchanting resident of the plantation, who, though enslaved, exercises plenty of influence over the place; but even that is not enough to ward off the inevitable antebellum decadence. Nathaniel is more thoughtful than most commercial travelers, quick to note ironies (as when Cheuse cleverly sets him to thinking of the problem of free will) and beset with existential questions suitable to a Hamlet: Is it moral to profit from slavery, even if from afar? Is blood thicker than water? Cheuse owes obvious debts to Herman Melville and his generation (“Call me Ishmael,” indeed), less obvious ones to the likes of Frederick Busch, William Styron and perhaps even Boccaccio; like all of them, he imagines whole, self-contained worlds, in this case the claustrophobic world of the plantation South and its whispers of miscegenation and incest—powerful stuff with which to pepper any story, particular in skillful hands such as these.

A complex, richly detailed story, which reaches an unexpected conclusion that, among other things, is likely to make the reader thirsty.