A haunting, beautifully written novel set in early-nineteenth-century Louisiana: the tale of a slave girl's journey--emotional and physical--from captivity to freedom.
Susan Straight has been called "a writer of exceptional gifts and grace" (Joyce Carol Oates). In A Million Nightingales she brings those gifts to bear on the story of Moinette, daughter of an African mother and a white father she never knew. While her mother cares for the plantation linens, Moinette tends to the master's daughter, which allows her to eavesdrop on lessons. She also learns that she is property, and at fourteen she is sold, separated from her mother without a chance to say goodbye. Heartbroken and terrified, and with a full understanding of what she will risk, Moinette begins almost immediately to prepare herself for the moment when she will escape.
It is Moinette's own voice that we hear--bright, rhythmic, observant, and altogether captivating-as she describes her journey through a world of brutality, sexual violence, and loss. Quick to see the patterns of French, American, and African life play out around her, Moinette makes her way from sugarcane fields through mysterious bayous to the streets of Opelousas, where the true meaning of freedom emerges from the bonds of love.
An uncommonly rich novel, brimming with event and character, A Million Nightingales is a powerful confirmation of the remarkable novelist we have in Susan Straight.
Set in Southern plantations and bayous during the years just following the Louisiana Purchase, Straight's impressionistic character study effectively evokes the conflicted m�lange of races, nationalities and cultures that defined the early 19th-century territory. The novel spans the life of Moinette, a "mulatresse," beginning with the events that wrench her from her mother at age 14, to her final days in her 40s. Moinette's first young mistress, Cephaline, exposes her to book learning, and Moinette struggles to negotiate the contradictions between the language of science and her mother's belief in traditional Senegalese spirits, a dichotomy that haunts her throughout her life. After Cephaline's premature death, Moinette, light-skinned and beautiful, is sold upriver and separated from her beloved mother. She repeatedly suffers sexual assault and must use her wits to protect herself, and later her son and daughters. While Straight (Highwire Moon) vividly depicts the danger and degradation black women faced, she also makes feminist comparisons between Moinette's enslavement and the situations of her wealthy white mistresses. However, the terms of Moinette's very sophisticated understanding of what's happening to her seem anachronistic, and the success she achieves, combined with the handy coincidences that lead to it, although tempered with tragedy, are too convenient to be entirely convincing. (Mar.)
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May 07, 2007
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Excerpt from A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
In late summer, I collected the moss with the same long poles we used to knock down the pecans in fall. I waved the pole around in the gray tangles and pulled them down from the oaks on the land beside the house, not far from the clearing where we washed and sewed. I couldn’t take the moss from the two oaks in front of the house, where the windows faced the river, because Madame Bordelon liked to look at that moss. It was a decoration. She watched me from the window of her bedroom. Everything on the front land at Azure was Madame’s, for decoration. Everything in the backlands was Msieu Bordelon’s, for money. And me—she stared at me all the time now. She stared at my hair, though she couldn’t see it. My hair was wrapped under the black tignon my mother had made last year for me, when I turned thirteen. I hated the weight on my skull. My hair was to be hidden, my mother said. That was the law. The cloth at my forehead felt like a bandage. Like it was holding in my brain. A brain floated in Doctor Tom’s jar, in the room where he always stayed when he came to treat Grandmère Bordelon, for her fatness, and where he stayed now to treat Céphaline, for her face. The brain was like a huge, wrinkled, pale pecan. One that didn’t break in half. Swimming in liquid. When I came for his laundry, he sat at the desk and the brain sat on the shelf, with the other jars. He said, “You can hold it.” The glass was heavy in my hands, and the brain shivered in the silvery water. “I bought that brain in 1808, yes, I did, and it’s been two years in the jar after spending several years inside a skull. You seem unafraid to hold it or examine it, Moinette,” he said in English. He was from London, and his words made his thin lips rise and twist differently from Creoles. “Your lack of fear would indicate that your own brain is working well.” Then he returned to his papers, and I took his dirty clothes away. How could brains be different? I measured heads the same way Mamère had taught me to measure a handful of fat to throw in the pot for soap, cupping my palm; the heavy handful had to reach the second bend on my fingers. The other side of knuckles—the little pad of skin like oval seed pearls when a person held out a hand to get something. I stared at my palms so long, clenching and straightening them, that Mamère frowned and told me to stir the soap. At the edge of the canefield when the cutters were resting, I hid myself in the tall stalks and fit my bent fingers over their heads. The grown people’s heads wore hats and tignons, but the skulls were nearly all the same size under my curved hand. It was not exact, though. I made a loop of wire from a scrap and measured Michel’s head when he was in the cane. He was a grown man, same as Msieu Bordelon. The cutters held very still when they rested. Their backs were against the wagon wheels and the trees. When I took clean laundry to the house, I stood near the dining room and quickly measured those heads at the table. The same loop for Msieu’s head, the only time he didn’t wear his hat, while he was eating. All our heads were the same size according to our age and sex: mine and Céphaline’s, Mamère and Madame’s, the men cutting cane and Msieu Bordelon’s. Under their hair, all their skulls were the same, and so the pecan brains floating inside that bone would be the same size unless the head was wrong, like Eveline’s baby who died. The baby’s head was swollen like a gourd grows in summer when it’s watered too much and then splits. By September, I pulled down the last moss from the side-lan