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SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT by Alan Cheuse

I didn’t think that I would have time to read any fiction this summer, despite the piles of lovely novels calling out to me.  With a long-anticipated book launch, courses to plan, academic papers promised, family visits, and much travel requiring several of me if I were to accomplish all that needs to be done, it seemed impossible that I might slip those bonds and escape into the joy of fiction.

That is why, when I opened SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT, it was just for a quick, forbidden look, so that I could hear the interior “Yes” that compels me to put a book on the dangerously tall stack of “fiction for when I have time.” 

Instead, I was pulled right in and put the book down only to sleep.  Despite being five hundred pages long, SONG is so beautifully and clearly written that  I lost myself to the book and finished reading it in twenty-four hours. 

I love the possibilities of narrative fiction, which gives writer and reader the capacity to leap through time, to understand that no story is a single story but a braid of time, place, motive, moral ambiguity, and emotional change through which, if the writing is good, the reader lives.  This ability to access and chronical other times and places, fictional or real, is the gift of our form of consciousness.  To me, it is the chief and crowning human wonder.  If we set ourselves apart from other creatures and claim that we are superior, instead of just different, from them, it seems to me that literacy is the main basis for our overweening smugness. 

To attract and hold  my attention, a novel must be complex, have depth; it must promise a certain emotional and intellectual intensity and it must fulfill that promise.  In short, my favorite type of novel immerses me in many minds, many times, many points of view.  I like the introduction of many point of view characters in service to Story rather than as supporting cast members.  To me, this is what literature is all about.  So I was hooked when I found that SONG’s storylines reach back centuries, brings up compelling issues rarely examined in fiction, and are composed of many points of view. 

Nathanial Pereira, a young Jewish man on the brink of being sent to Europe for his grand tour, afterwards to take over his family’s New York dry goods business, is instead sent to his uncle’s plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, where he is to evaluate the business for his father for possible investment.  Once there, he is overwhelmed by the shock of slavery itself, compounded by the fact that Jews themselves were once slaves, which, to him, would make owning other humans seem an impossible hypocracy. 

Nate’s narrative is intercut with a powerful roar of images and stories that follow one slave’s lineage through generations in Africa and South Carolina.  Liza, beautiful and strangely literate, captures Nate’s imagination and lays bare for him the horrors of human ownership. SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT is a novel about the power of literacy, but it is also a novel about slavery and freedom, human fraility, and human strength.  It is about these issues, and yet, Cheuse, because he is a masterful writer, never preaches, but shows what these ideas and words mean to real individuals, and how their understanding of these concepts and conditions changes throughout the novel.  

The book flows forward through plot twists that I won’t attempt to summarize here, because I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the book.  I can only urge you to buy SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT and read it soon. 

Or put it on that stack of novels by your bedside, and open it at your peril. 

 

 

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