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Friday, July 30, 2010

A Melodious Song

The Long Song
Andrea Levy

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

July is the child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in Jamaica. When the master's sister, Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, meets her, she decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.” Resourceful and mischievous, July soon becomes indispensable to her mistress and grows up in the house as her personal servant. Together they live through the bloody Baptist war, followed by the violent and chaotic end of slavery. When Caroline's brother dies, Caroline must run the plantation herself, but it proves too much for her so she teaches July to read and write so that she can help her mistress run the business, July remains bound to the plantation despite her “freedom," but the other slaves decide they are more interested in building their own livelihoods than contributing to the success of the plantation. When a new overseer is hired, his beliefs in the value of the Negro along with his strong Christian values cause a crisis on the plantation -- and a dramatic change in the lives of both July and her mistress.

July narrates this story when she is an old woman at the request of her son. As she tells the story of the slave named July, she does so in the third person and her narration may or may not be the truthful story of her life. Sometimes when she bends the truth, her son calls her on it and then she is persuaded to give an honest account of events. In fact, her son occasionally enters the narration to tell his story when hers lacks perspective. This "story within a story" is a large part of this novel's success. Whether July's story is honestly told or not doesn't matter; she is an unforgettable character who lived through a hard time in Jamaica's history. She was strong and cunning and lonely -- and did some things that she may have regretted later, but choices have consequences that can't be foreseen ahead of time. July is not an easy character to like, but I still respected and admired her and appreciated her story and her storytelling efforts. She is a person I would like to get to know further, if she would let me, because she does not feel sorry for herself and enjoys the small pleasures that come to her.


Other books by this author:
Small Island, 2004
Fruit of the Lemon, 1999

Other titles you may enjoy:

Cane River by Lalita Tademy (2001)
Tademy weaves together historical fact and fiction to create a vivid and dramatic account of what life was like for the four remarkable women who came before her. Beginning with Tademy’s great-great-great-great grandmother Elisabeth, this is a family saga that sweeps from the early days of slavery through the Civil War into a pre-Civil Rights South.

Land of Many Colors; and Nanna-ya by Marise Conde (1999)
Two historical novellas set in the Caribbean. The first is on a revolutionary fighting the French, the second is a roman a trois against the background of a slave revolt in Jamaica.

Greenwichtown by Joyce Palmer (2001)
Set in Jamaica, Greenwichtown is the story of Fay Myrtle, an innocent, young girl who lives in a shack outside a Jamaican plantation. An older sister takes her from the village to live in the inner-city ghettos of Greenwichtown. As she struggles to come of age, she is caught up in a web of betrayal and is devastated by the death of the man she loves.

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