The Long Song

I am not particularly good with titles for my own writing. Titles should hint but not give anything away. And so when I picked up Andrea Levy‘s 2010 novel, The Long Song, I was totally unprepared for the brutality of slave life on a Jamaican sugar plantation. Song? What song? Why did Levy choose this title?

The narrator is July, a former slave who, at her son’s request, is writing her life story. She resists committing her story to paper, but when she does so, she tells the story in the third person. ‘July did this and that’ rather than ‘first I did this and then I did that.’ At first I was a bit disconcerted, but as I read along, I realized that July could only tell her story by “telling it slant” and distancing herself from the reality.

Black becomes gray; gray becomes white; pain is just a hangnail.

I think of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): Tell all the Truth but tell it slant… / success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The truth’s superb surprise / As lightening to the Children eased / With explanation kind / the Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.

At the time of July’s writing her memoir, the son is a well-to-do printer and he wants July to pen her life experiences. Having grown up in England with his adoptive family, he knows little of his mother’s life on a Jamaican plantation. 

Unable to raise the son forcefully fathered by the white overseer, July had left her son on the Baptist minister’s doorstep. When the minister’s family returned to England, they took the baby with them. Good schooling and service as a printer’s apprentice set July’s son on the road to a comfortable life.

Years later, the son returns to Jamaica and serving on a jury, he meets July, who is on trial for stealing a chicken. The son and the mother are reunited, and at the son’s insistence, July puts pen to paper. Every few chapters, the son reads July’s work, and he questions the truth of what she has written. Has she told it true?

Of giving her son away, July writes (in the third person) : “That miserable July had no misgivings. She devised a story that told how the black-skinned baby she gave life to died rigid and grey with the very first lungful of air it breathed.”

And then in the very next paragraph, July reverts to first person: “And this is why I can go no further. This is why my story is at an end. For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these. and please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them. It is only my son that desires it. For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again. Him wan’ me suffer every likkle t’ing again!”

My favorite historical novels are those with a bibliography. Such is the case with The Long Song. Levy did her homework. Aside from daily life on a cane plantation, the story revolves around the Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831-32. The rebellion (this one more commonly known as the Baptist War) was precipitated by a drought which resulted in falling revenue and reduced rations for the slaves.. The planters, thinking to get blood out of stone, wanted “more.” Meanwhile, the Baptist ministers were preaching freedom and the churches afforded the slaves of one plantation to mix with the slaves of neighboring plantations. It was a perfect storm. The history is fascinating. Read all about it. http://histclo.com/country/la/jam/hist/jh-rebbw.html is just one of a number of good sites.

As for the title, is July’s story a song? It is a song of tenacity. It is a song of survival. It is a song in terms of reconciliation, comedy and contempt.

We don’t sing from the same songbook, but we all sing the same life long song.

(If you were hoping for something of life in Mexico, don’t lose heart. Next week we are whale watching in the San Ignacio Lagoon. Stay tuned. I’ll blog before we leave to set the scene.)

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Writer’s Prompt:

  • Taking a tip from Andrea Levy, write a piece in which a character tells a story ‘at a slant,’ and is then called upon to revise the story. What circumstances have led to your character telling a half-truth? When the truth is told, how does the story unfold?
  • A variation on this prompt is to have a character write four postcards. One postcard goes to a best friend; one goes to the parents; one goes to the boss; and one goes to the boyfriend/girlfriend at home.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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