The slave-owning culture of Maryland’s eastern shore in the 1850s comprises the world of McBride’s second novel (following Miracle at St. Anna, 2002, and the bestselling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 1996).
Recaptured runaway slave Liz Spocott, wounded by a musket blast and chained to fellow runaways in the attic of “trader”-crime boss Patty Cannon, learns “the Code” by which embattled slaves communicate and survive from a skeletal woman (“The old Woman With No Name”) and, acting on a chance opportunity, escapes again. The novel then assumes the shape of a series of quests and pursuits. Liz wanders along a perilous route which she hopes will lead her to the Freedom Train, hence northward to safety—accompanied and bedeviled by prophetic “visions” that reach far into “the future of the colored race.” The latter are often eerily compelling, but when “the Dreamer” Liz “sees” rap and hip-hop performances, and eventually Martin Luther King’s “Free At Last” speech, the novel groans under the weight of forced Significance. Far more compelling are parallel tales: of the Woolman, a gigantic black who lives in a swamp and keeps an alligator named Gar; widowed landowner Kathleen Sullivan, unhinged by sexual longing for her handsome young slave Amber; and Denwood Long, a former slave-catcher lured out of retirement to return Liz to her irate owner Colonel Spocott. While its language is frequently stiff and unconvincing, the book has great compensatory strengths. McBride views the “peculiar institution” of slavery from an impressive multiplicity of involved characters’ and observers’ viewpoints. He describes emotionally charged, hurried actions superbly, and he makes expert use of folklore, legend and the eponymous unsung song (which we do eventually hear). In Denwood’s grim, fatalistic pursuit of his destiny, McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution and sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner’s sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.