On Easter morning, 1939, a crush of people have gathered on the Washington Mall to hear a free concert by Marian Anderson, America’s greatest contralto, who, having gained an international reputation, has returned to the United States for a grueling seventy-concert tour. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refuse Anderson the use of Constitution Hall because she is black, the concert, through Eleanor Roosevelt’s intervention, is moved to the Mall, where tens of thousands can attend. Delia, a voice student, has come to Washington, D.C., against the admonitions of her father, Dr. William Daley, a physician in Philadelphia. He has discouraged her musical pursuits in the hope that she will enter a profession, preferably law.
A mere pinpoint in the monumental crowd on the Mall, Delia, subvocalizing on the train trip to Washington, D.C., continues to sing sotto voce as the concert proceeds. Approaching the Mall to hear Anderson sing is David Strom, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. A scientist concerned with relativity and obsessed by such concepts as curved time, Strom is a professor at Columbia University. A promising theoretical physicist, David possesses scientific equipment consisting of his brain, a pencil, and a notepad. His family in Europe has disappeared into the gaping maw of the Holocaust, although, as is revealed late in the novel, his sister Hannah survives and returns to Germany. Delia’s barely audible singing entices David.
Delia realizes more than David that a white Jewish refugee and a black American have no future because, in the eyes of most Americans, they are of different species. Despite their differences and the problems Delia knows will taint any relationship they might have, she and David are drawn irresistibly to each other and ultimately, against the counsel of Delia’s family, they marry. The Time of Our Singing relates the story of their marriage and of their three offspring, all talented, all marked by the racial complexity that mixed marriages engendered at that time.
The two cannot go on a honeymoon because there is no public accommodation in the United States that will admit a mixed race couple. The story, of course, is about much more than a marriage and a family: It is a concise history of race relations in the United States from the late 1930’s until the 1990’s, including the days of the United States’ greatest racial strife, the 1960’s and 1970’s. A controlling theme in the novel is alienation.
Powers has a commanding grasp of the sociopolitical forces that determined the course of American history during the torturous days when the murders of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmett Till, Malcolm X, and countless others filled headlines. He understands in considerable depth why the United States was burning in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He presents the details of these tensions through the eyes of the three Strom children, each of whom has a foot in two worlds, one black, the other white, but who belong in neither. The first-person narrator, Joseph Strom, lends to the story an immediacy and urgency that typifies first-person narration.
Initially, the Strom children are protected from much of the racial unrest in the Hamilton Heights section of New York City, where they live. As children, they have slight brushes with racial bullies, but Da, as David is called, and Delia decide to homeschool them, shielding them from the hazard of attending regular schools, public or private. The boys also protect their parents, not telling them about racial bullies who assault them in their neighborhood.
At the urging of Albert Einstein, one of Da’s professional friends and associates, Da and Delia decide that Jonah must expand his musical education. He enters Boston’s Boyleston Conservatory, where he is somewhat protected, although one student there proclaims that he is not supposed to eat a meal with a black person. The following year, when Joseph follows Jonah to Boyleston, the two are subjected to subtle racism but nothing like what they would have encountered in a typical New York City school.
The Time of Our Singing is essentially a Bildungsroman that traces intricately the development of three children from birth to maturity and, in Jonah’s case, death. The Strom family begins as a happy and cohesive, if somewhat isolated, entity. Each child’s life is family centered. The children all study with David and Delia. The family gathers for musical evenings in which the range of selections is daunting. By the time the children are...