Susan Straight, who is perhaps best known for her 1992 novel I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, tends to focus on what Publishers Weekly has described as “the intersections of love, race, class and violence” in the modern United States. In A Million Nightingales, her sixth novel, she addresses the same subjects but moves her setting back in time almost two centuries, to a number of slave plantations thriving in the years after the Louisiana Purchase.
Straight begins this ambitious enterprise by taking two very large technical risks, both of which mostly pay major dividends as the narrative proceeds. From the novel’s first sentence, “In late summer, I collected the moss with the same long poles we used to knock down the pecans in fall,” the author jettisons any attempt at preamble or context and instead sends the reader headlong into the real-time thoughts and perceptions of the central character, a fourteen-year-old slave girl.
Simultaneously, Straight sets the reader down into a confusing polyglot of Creole, French, and African phrases, untranslated except for a glossary in the back of the book that contains several dozen of the most frequently used terms. In the hands of a lesser writer, either of these devices could have resulted in a story too self>consciously eager to show off its author’s painstaking historical research. Instead, the rich, sensuous language and strong narrative line combine with the reader’s logical and emotional dislocation to produce an imagined world with the convincing tone of firsthand experience.
The novel takes its title from a line of poetry: “I have a million nightingales on the branches of my heart singing freedom,” and it is the heart’s primal longing for freedom in a perilous and constricting world that propels the main character’s journey across three decades. Moinette, who is given no last name, is the mixed-race daughter of a Senegalese mother and an absent white fathera businessman guest of the Azure plantation who was supplied with a female slave for the night as a hospitality “gift” from the plantation owner. The young Moinette, with her light skin and exotic beauty, is taunted as a cadeau-fille, or “gift girl,” by some of the darker-skinned slaves.
The slaves’ spirituality, a convoluted mixture of African tribal and animist religions with colonialist Christianity, plays a central role in their lives. The Creole term for the afterlife, là-bas, arises repeatedly in their discussions of life and death, as when Moinette’s mother, Marie-Thérèse, tells her, “Here on earth, you belong to me. If you died, then you would go belong to God. Là-bas.” Assimilating this web of superstition and traditional wisdom into her life is problematic for Moinette, who has a burgeoning fascination with the principles of modern science and medicine. In this passage from early in the book, a physician notices the girl staring at a human brain preserved in a glass jar: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 spa, cupping my palm; the heavy handful had to reach the second bend on my fingers. . . . I...
(The entire section is 1636 words.)