The Time of Our Singing

by Richard Powers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

On the Easter Sunday of 1939 when David Strom, a German and a nonpracticing Jew who has fled from Nazi Germany, met Delia Daley, a gifted black gospel singer from Philadelphia, the two were drawn irresistibly to each other. Delia, a physician’s daughter, and David, a physicist teaching at Columbia University, were well aware of the complications that their marriage would ignite both in Delia’s family and in their own lives. Nevertheless, they married and had three children, one of whom, Joey Strom, is Powers’s narrator. Each of the children, Joey, Jonah, and Ruth (nicknamed Rootie), is gifted musically, but Jonah is a world-class tenor, who eventually flees to Europe to pursue his career in an atmosphere where he will be identified as a singer rather than as a “black singer.”

David and Delia do everything they can to protect their children from the racial difficulties that mixed-race children faced in New York—indeed, in most of the United States—at that time. They home-schooled the children, and music became the center of their lives, the unifying force that enabled them to create their own exclusive realities. It is a combination of music and physics that causes Albert Einstein to make a cameo appearance in the novel.

When the children are of an age to leave home, their parents attempt to find the most compatible situations for them, but even in racially tolerant educational institutions in Boston, they are subjected to racial discrimination on a social if not professional level. The story, which encompasses three generations, takes its characters through World War II, Hiroshima, the Korean War, the Kennedy brothers’ assassinations, and up to such contemporary debacles as the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles and the race riots in 1992 that ensued.

By the time of these riots, Rootie has become a civil rights activist. After her activist husband is killed by police, Rootie opens an alternative primary school in Oakland. Joey, who has tried various musical pursuits, now settles down to teaching music in his sister’s school. Jonah, who attempts to be apolitical, became involved nevertheless in the Watts Riot on one of his return trips to the United States and was injured.

Now home again on tour, he visits with Joey in Berkeley before continuing his tour in Southern California. There be becomes involved in the riots following the King beating, is struck in the face by a police officer’s baton, and the next morning is found dead in his hotel room.

The one hope for the family now seems to be in Rootie’s bright, musically gifted son, Robert, whose life may be less scarred by racial prejudice than were the lives of his parents and uncles. It appears that Robert’s closest associations, however, will be with the black rather than with the white community.

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