Song Yet Sung

By James McBride

Riverhead Books.

359 pp. $25.95


Reviewed by Diane McKinney-Whetstone


James McBride's new novel,

Song Yet Sung

, is a riparian thriller.

In the opening scenes, escaped slave Liz Spocott drowns a hunting dog in the waters of Maryland's Eastern Shore, is shot in the face, caught and chained to the attic floor of notoriously crooked slave-trader Patty Cannon, pulls a nail from the floorboard with her teeth, then uses the nail to attack Patty Cannon's chargé, Little George, when he tries to have his way with her, but not before the old woman with whom she'd been chained introduces Liz to the Code.

Liz and the nail fuel an attic-break. Fourteen escape.

Patty Cannon is enraged; the break is not just a tremendous financial loss, there might be the even greater consequence of the loss of face. Patty and her posse take off to reclaim what wasn't hers. She's not the only one in pursuit. Liz's original captor wants her back. Liz is beautiful and Captain Spocott of Dorchester County is willing to pay such a high price for her return that Denwood Long, a waterman and especially gifted slave catcher, is enticed out of retirement.

Denwood, known as the Gimp, has his own issue-filled back-story. In defiance of a preacher's warning, he proclaimed his nonbelief in God by placing his son briefly in a basket with a six-legged dog, expecting no harm; the son died six days later, rendering Denwood himself "dead inside."

Intensifying the complication is the Woolman, a massive black man not a part of the social strata of slave/master/free who was parented by the swampy woods and, acknowledging the give-and-take of natural rule only, is intent on grabbing and holding a white child in ransom for his own son, injured when the boy's foot was caught in a muskrat trap.

And then there is the Code, a secret communication system understood by blacks only, though Denwood is close to cracking it.

The code shouts its message in plain view on ropes knotted five times; on quilts and in the arrangement of the baked chicken sent from one house to the next. The code is especially prevalent in the hammering of the blacksmith when he'd signal with a series of rings and stops: "Wake up the network. Colored's gone running."

Suffice it to say that McBride knows how to keep the pages turning even as a young slave's thoughts turn to love. Amber tends to beautiful Liz as she waits hidden in a hollowed-out oak. Like everyone in this part of Maryland, he's aware of her mythology, that she's a conjurer. The Dreamer she's called. She frequently falls into trancelike periods of sleep in which she sees the disturbing future that looks like today, "with young black men in great cities who shot one another from horseless carriages and of fat children who cried of starvation and ran from books like they were poison."

Liz's character is based loosely on Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who helped hundreds of slaves escape north to freedom, and who was born not far from the novel's setting, Maryland's Eastern Shore, in the 1850s.

McBride describes the Eastern Shore as shrouded in myth and superstition. And it is in the evocation of this haunting place, the symbiotic relationship between character and setting, where McBride especially shines.

The creeks and rivers that feed the Chesapeake are iridescent as they rush with slaves and slave catchers, thieves and watermen, constables on the take. The thick marshland, only 80 miles from freedom, is a metaphor for Amber's emotional landscape. The forest's thicket mimics the system of slavery that is more a system of brutal entanglements than it is a neat field of master over slave.

Even the oysters are stunning - the slaves here don't raise cotton - with their thrilling exteriors and meaty insides.

Diane McKinney-Whetstone, who teaches fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of four novels, including "Tumbling" and "Leaving Cecil Street." Her fifth novel, "Trading Dreams at Midnight," will be published in June.