A Million Nightingales

by Susan Straight

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A Million Nightingales

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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...

(This entire section contains 1636 words.)

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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 stared at my palms so long, clenching and straightening them, that Mamère frowned and told me to stir the soap.

Despite terrible conditions, Moinette has three things in her favor at Azure: her nurturing and protective mother; the friendship of her white mistress Cephaline, who teaches her to read; and Moinette’s own fierce intelligence, curiosity, and resourcefulness that never stops trying to make sense ofand make the best ofthe violent and dispiriting world around her.

After Cephaline dies from illness, Moinette is sold to another plantation, without even the chance to tell her mother good-bye. The girl thereby loses two of her crucial life-preservers and must rely solely on her wits and determination as she approaches adulthood in a strange new environment.

Her journey upriver by steamboat to the home of her new owners is one of the most vivid and troubling sections of the novel, in which violence and hardship are the common threads of the slaves’ daily existence. Moinette gradually learns of the bizarre range of punishments that await slaves who attempt to rebel or escape, and the wider world comes to seem even more dangerous and unpredictable than the place she is leaving, as in this scene:On the riverbank, two heads were mounted on poles at the bend, where the boat slowed. The eyes were gone. The skin was dried like hide. Purple brown. The hair was coated with dust from the river road. The curls left were pale as gold . . . The pikes had gone into their brains then. And how did they find a man willing to mount them there? Lifting them and then . . .

In her new life, as in her previous one, Moinette’s good looks and social skills make her a natural choice as personal servant to one of the ladies of the house. That position gives her, and the reader, an intriguing window into the behind-the-scenes domestic life of wealthy white southern families in the 1800’s. Their complex dowry system is another type of oppression, in which marriages for such families’ daughters are determined more by cold economics than by romantic love.

Moinette’s innate curiosity and powers of observation make her an articulate reporter of history, and only at a few points in the narrative does her level of sophistication in matters regarding her white mistresses’ circumscribed opportunities run the risk of dispelling the illusion of reality by seeming too modern for its time period. For the most part, Straight acquits herself with an uncommon grace and skill. In a review for The New York Times, novelist Megan Marshall aptly describes A Million Nightingales as “a deep consideration of the servitude all women experienced thenand, in some ways and some places, continue to experience even now. The white women [in the book] are traded in a marriage market far less brutal than the slave market, but one that nonetheless reduces them to animals.”

Near the halfway point of the book, Moinettestill grieving at being separated from her motherbecomes a mother herself (also bearing the child of a white man), only to see her firstborn son sold away as a toddler. The second half of the book is driven by Moinette’s obsession with someday buying the boy back. It is a compounded irony, as free blacks of that era frequently owned slaves themselves, and at one point a Jewish man berates her for her plan: “You would participate in that which torments you? Slavery exists in the Christian Bible, in the children of Ham, in Moses leading his people. But it is only about money.”

Even after a combination of human kindness and fortuitous circumstances results in Moinette achieving manumissionlegal emancipation from slaveryher life becomes more complicated, not less, and is still ruled by fate, commerce, and difficult choices. In grief over her son’s untimely death, she finds new purpose by saving her money to buy two young slave girls who will become her daughters. Prematurely aged by bitterly hard labor and the loss of so many loved ones, she finds a hard-won sort of peace:One night, I cried for myself. The girls had gone to sleep in our room, the door open a black wedge because they never wanted it dark; they wanted a slice of firelight and the glint of my needle. But my hands rested on my skirt. By the end of the day of plucking chickens and rinsing clothes and cutting onions, the veins on the backs of my hands looked like green-blue letters . . . I was shrinking, the way women did as they got older, and my skin was thin as old parchment. When the fire was only jewels, and the house was safe from burning, I let my head rest on the black velvet pad sewed for my chair. I couldn’t sleep lying down but had to begin my rest this way, as my mother had, as old women did, with my body still convinced that it was working, watching, waiting.

Straight told a National Public Radio interviewer that being the mother of three daughters was the catalyst for her new book: “I had not ever been able to decide how my girls would have fared if they had been born at another time. And that was something I thought about for ten years before I wrote this novel.” A Million Nightingales is the rare work of imagination that so thoroughly subsumes an author’s concerns and intentions that they become transformed into something altogether new. That miraculous alchemy is perhaps best described by Megan Marshall, who describes the novel as “a powerful and moving story, written in language so beautiful you can almost believe the words themselves are capable of salving history’s wounds.”

Bibliography

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Booklist 102, no. 11 (February 1, 2006): 24.

Library Journal 131, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 103-106.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 19, 2006): 8.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 50 (December 19, 2005): 36.