As caught up as so many of us are in the quotidian, a historical novel seems hardly relevant.
Yet, NPR All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse has managed to write an epic that is exquisitely appropos; in his newly released Song of Slaves in the Desert– A Novel of Slavery and The Southern Wild — Source Books 2011, he gives us the issues of ethnicity, race and freedom in a new, eloquent light.
Song of Slaves in the Desert begins with the searing account of a sheik warning his slave of his impending sale, that slave’s attempt to escape with his family, and capture.
Meanwhile, in mid-nineteenth century New York Nathan Pereira is a young Jew sent by his father to Charleston to monitor family interests. So it is that histories collide and the colorful protagonist, delivered to the reader in a remarkable first person assemblage of detail, begins to confront how it is and why it is that Jews, themselves the indisputable victims of history, came to possess African slaves in the antebellum South.
Cheuse is a canny narrator, writing in rich prose: “’Not long now, massa,’ Isaac said, another week or so later, holding up a handful of the rich and plumped kernels from the stalks at our feet, stalks that held their heads high, strong, in spite of the weight of the burgeoning kernels.”
“…Mute at dinner—retiring early to my room—reading (Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe!) dreaming into the dark—that was my round after returning from the fields. I felt as much slave to my condition as the dark people who went home to their cabins and took some feeble pleasures before sleep and the next day’s round of hard labor.”
The heart of The Song of Slaves in the Desert is “The Passage,” a grueling journey, a tale oft told but seldom with Alan Cheuse’s exquisite poetry, delineating the unbearable brutality in which the children of the slaves were thrown into the sea: “Her heart pounded, the wind pounded the sails, the ship pounded its way into the rolling sea. Where did they take those children? Lyaa asked in a voice raspy with thirst and emotion, hearing nothing but moans and hoarse shouting, the roar of wind and rush of water against cloth and wood.”
Histories intertwine when Pereira encounters the beautiful Liza, descendant of the desert slaves, crossing an heretofore unbreachable boundary.
It is a daunting task to explore the twists and turns of history, to sift through to find narrative threads and weave them together. Writing such a book is tantamount to archaeology: you have the bones, then the flesh and then the emergent story with its revelations. Cheuse paints a world that draws the reader in to come face to face with great disparities and conundrums, his characters justly fallible and ignoble and yet who are redeemed, as we hope we all are, by their efforts to overcome and come to terms.