Alan Cheuse is probably best known for his savvy and engaging book reviews on National Public Radio, but he is also an accomplished novelist and essayist. His latest book, “Song of Slaves in the Desert” (Sourcebooks, $25.99), is a Great American Novel in the most profound and important sense — a novel about the human experience of slavery in the American South.
The title is borrowed from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the novel itself opens with a burst of lyricism — the night flight of a family of slaves and the stone with enigmatic markings that they carry with them. “What hands had passed it along from time through time,” muses the author, “until it lay in the palm of a man sprawled on his back on the desert floor between the town and the river?”
Cheuse excites and gratifies the reader’s curiosity, both in the opening passages and throughout the saga that unfolds across the pages of his novel. Thus, for example, he allows us to understand that the stone links a family of African American slaves to their distant homeland, and he passes the narrator’s duties back and forth with a charming character named Nathaniel Pereira — “sandy-haired, blue-eyed, with a handsome bent nose” — who stands in for the 3 to 5 percent of American slaveholders in the antebellum South who were Jewish.
Pereira, “a perfect Manhattan lad,” is sent by his father to inspect a rice plantation in the South — “I know nothing about rice,” he protests,
“[a]nd less about slaves” — and he quickly recognizes the irony of his task. “And it was only an hour or so after my arrival here on a delightful morning,” he reports, “that I, a descendant of slaves from Egypt and Babylon, witnessed my first trading in human flesh.” Indeed, the squalor of slavery turns out to be a harsh but crucial starting place for his moral education.
“Well, I’m glad you came down here from up North to learn some things,” says a slave named Isaac. “Because you got a lot to learn.”
Surprises and tensions of various kinds drive the story along. When Nathaniel’s cousin tells him that “we have recently had quite a revolution,” he is referring to the installation of an organ in the Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston. And when Nathaniel imagines the slave girl Liza on the auction block, we realize that his thoughts have nothing to do with buying and selling slaves: “Cinnamon and bonfire,” he rhapsodizes, “a bouquet of blood and wine.” But the parallel narrative, which follows a family of artisans from Timbuktu on their descent into slavery in the New World, is the more primal story in every sense, as when Cheuse describes the slave market at a place called Tambacounda.
“The traders led their entourage off to one side of the courtyard, where a long-bearded man with a book inscribed numbers with a reed pen,” goes the faintly biblical account. “His wives and many concubines stood behind him wearing fine silks, bands of gold and silver around their heads, singing quietly among themselves while their master went about his work of dispatching the goods presented to them by the traders.” The goods, of course, are human beings: “Zainab screamed and the girls wailed and before they knew it they lived apart from each other for the rest of their lives.”
The two narratives eventually entwine in the most urgent and heart-tugging ways. I will not spoil the bittersweet experience of “Songs of Slaves in the Desert” except to say that it is the work of a master storyteller. Now and then, for example, Cheuse pauses, muses out loud and offers an aside to the reader. Sometimes he enters the thoughts and dreams of his characters, sometimes he fills in the blank spots in their family history, and sometimes he simply addresses his audience: “Please remember,” he writes at one point, “no matter what you hear or see, these Africans are neither inferior people nor anything like animals, though you will see them traded, bought and sold as though they were.” Indeed, Cheuse deserves credit for affording his African American characters the dignity they deserve — they may be enslaved, but they are not reduced to the stereotype of slaves.
The tale that Cheuse tells in “Song of Slaves in the Desert” has been told many times before and in many different ways. But he tells it with a kind of majesty and intensity that I found wholly lacking in, say, E.L. Doctorow’s “The March.” I think it’s a perfect choice for book clubs and reading groups because it offers so much to talk about. And for the Jewish reader who is preparing for Passover, the book can be approached as nothing less than a latter-day haggadah, a challenge to imagine that we were slaves, not in the Egypt of biblical antiquity, but somewhere much closer to home in both time and space.