On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson's epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish eacute;migreacute; scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual love of music draws them together, and-against all odds and better judgment-they marry. They vow to raise their children beyond time, beyond identity, steeped only in song. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth grow up, however, during the Civil Rights era, coming of age in the violent 1960s, and living out adulthood in the racially retrenched late century. Jonah, the eldest, "whose voice could make heads of state repent," follows a life in his parents' beloved classical music. Ruth, the youngest, devotes herself to community activism and repudiates the white culture her brother represents. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator of this generation-bridging tale, struggles to find himself and remain connected to them both.
- National Book Critics Circle Awards
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
January 01, 2004
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Excerpt from The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers
Plowing the Dark
In some empty hall, my brother is still singing. His voice hasn't dampened yet. Not altogether. The rooms where he sang still hold an impression, their walls dimpled with his sound, awaiting some future phonograph capable of replaying them.
My brother Jonah stands fixed, leaning against a piano. He's just twenty. The sixties have only begun. The country still dozes in its last pretended innocence. No one has heard of Jonah Strom but our family, what's left of it. We've come to Durham, North Carolina, the old music building at Duke. He has made it to the finals of a national vocal competition he'll later deny ever having entered. Jonah stands alone, just right of center stage. My brother towers in place, listing a little, backing up into the crook of the grand piano, his only safety. He curls forward, the scroll on a reticent cello. Left hand steadies him against the piano edge, while right hand cups in front of him, holding some letter, now oddly lost. He grins at the odds against being here, breathes in, and sings.
One moment, the Erl-King is hunched on my brother's shoulder, whispering a blessed death. In the next, a trapdoor opens up in the air and my brother is elsewhere, teasing out Dowland of all things, a bit of ravishing sass for this stunned lieder crowd, who can't grasp the web that slips over them:
Time stands still with gazing on her face,
Stand still and gaze for minutes, hours, and years to her give place.
All other things shall change, but she remains the same,
Till heavens changed have their course and time hath lost his name.
Two stanzas, and his tune is done. Silence hangs over the hall. It drifts above the seats like a balloon across the horizon. For two downbeats, even breathing is a crime. Then there's no surviving this surprise except by applauding it away. The noisy gratitude of hands starts time up again, sending the dart to its target and my brother on to the things that will finish him.
This is how I see him, although he'll live another third of a century. This is the moment when the world first finds him out, the night I hear where his voice is headed. I'm up onstage, too, at the battered Steinway with its caramel action. I accompany him, trying to keep up, trying not to listen to that siren voice that says, Stop your fingers, crash your boat on the reef of keys, and die in peace.
Though I make no fatal fumbles, that night is not my proudest as a musician. After the concert, I'll ask my brother again to let me go, to find an accompanist who can do him justice. And again he'll refuse. "I already have one, Joey."
I'm there, up onstage with him. But at the same time, I'm down in the hall, in the place I always sit at concerts: eight rows back, just inside the left aisle. I sit where I can see my own fingers moving, where I can study my brother's face -- close enough to see everything, but far enough to survive seeing.
Stage fright ought to paralyze us. Backstage is a single bleeding ulcer. Performers who've spent their whole youth training for this moment now prepare to spend their old age explaining why it didn't go as planned. The hall fills with venom and envy, families who've traveled hundreds of miles to see their lives' pride reduced to runner-up. My brother alone is fearless. He has already paid. This public contest has nothing to do with music. Music means those years of harmonizing together, still in the shell of our family, before that shell broke open and burned. Jonah glides through the backstage fright, the dressing rooms full of well-bred nausea, on a cloud, as though through a dress rehearsal for a performance already canceled. Onstage, against this sea of panic, his calm electrifies. The drape of his hand on the piano's black enamel ravishes his listeners, the essence of his sound before he even makes one