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James McBride Blends Fact With Fiction in 'Song'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

James McBride's new novel, Song Yet Sung, is a lyrical tale of this country's biggest drama: slavery. Set a decade before the Civil War on Maryland's Eastern Shore, it is the story of a runaway slave who has visions of the future and a Chesapeake Bay waterman who becomes a slave catcher because he needs the money. A tumult of fictional and historical characters and events, the book "is filled with ambiguity," the author says.

"Good people do bad things; bad people do good things. ... I felt that it was important to show people as I believe they really were, as opposed to the stereotypical view of slavery."

McBride first gained national prominence in 1996 with the publication of his memoir The Color of Water. That book told the story of his widowed, white, Jewish mother from Poland who wound up in Harlem, married a black man and raised 12 children in a Brooklyn housing project. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. His 2003 novel The Miracle at St. Anna, about the black 92nd Infantry during World War II, is being made into a movie directed by Spike Lee.

With a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University, McBride worked as a staff writer at various publications, including the Washington Post, before trading his typewriter for a tenor sax at age 30. Besides nonfiction and fiction, he has composed music and lyrics for Anita Baker and Grover Washington Jr., among others. It was while traveling as a tenor saxophone sideman that he began work on his memoir.

Trolling for an idea for his third book, Song Yet Sung, McBride was inspired by a trip he took to Maryland, where he saw a marker for Harriet Tubman's birthplace. "It was and is a place where you can go a mile away from Dunkin' Donuts and look around and see pretty much what it was like 200 or 300 years ago."

Asked whether he considers himself to be an historian or a storyteller, McBride chooses the latter. "You have to forgive the past," he says. "I think only now am I at the age where I've forgiven the past enough to say, 'You know what? Slavery was there. Let's talk about it in ways that will help us face tomorrow.' " McBride adds, "Slavery really was a web of relationships. Seeing [it] from that perspective is what kind of propelled this book along."

This reading of Song Yet Sung took place in February 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of NPR.org’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on NPR.org. She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.