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In 'Song Yet Sung,' the pursuit of a higher form of freedom

James McBride's new novel tells of a runaway slave who encounters slavery in many different forms.

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Song Yet Sung By James McBride Riverhead Books 359 pp., $25.95

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Dreams are sometimes what people retreat to when the reality before their eyes is too horrible to accept as the truth. It's no wonder, then, that a dreamer is at the heart of James McBride's spellbinding new novel Song Yet Sung.

This is a story of American slavery, but not one scene is spent on a Southern plantation with stereotypes of cruel white masters and cowering black slaves.

Instead, Liz Spocott is a wounded runaway slave who has already fled the plantation – only to find herself confounded by troubling visions of the future. She has been captured by a slave trader and chained up along with 14 other runaways in an attic. There, in whispers under the eaves, Liz learns about "the code" – a cryptic means of communication for slaves on the run – from an old woman "with no name." In turn, Liz shares her strange dreams. To her fellow inmates, she becomes the Dreamer.

Led in a revolt by Liz, the prisoners kill their black guard and spring free. Two die, six are recaptured, and four, plus Liz, vanish into the Maryland woods 80 miles from freedom's line.

Thus, tales of the strange and beautiful young woman who has future sight and magical powers spreads among the black community and it seems the whole world starts looking for her. Her master, Captain Spocott, who wants his "cuddle-pillow" back, sends a man to convince legendary slave-tracker Denwood Long to set down his fishing nets and come out of retirement to find Liz.

Patty Cannon, the slave trader, and her posse of a few ruffian white men and black men (used as decoys) are also in hot pursuit – driven by revenge and greed for the bounty on Liz's head.

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