Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reading Travels: In 19th Century Jamaica on the tracks of The Long Song

The Long Song: A Novel
In the Long Song, Andrea Levy tells a historical story, and she tells it well. And one of the reasons why the Long Song is such a good story is Levy’s unconventional approach to the historical novel. She does not linger on the historical facts or their interpretation, but she does focus on re-creating the events by telling the stories of the people who witnessed these events. And her characters are ‘real’ people as she is able to give them a human dimension – their stories, their actions, their emotions go beyond our stereotypes about slaves, slave owners, black people, white people…

The main part of the story unfolds the events during the period preceding the abolishment of slavery in 1838 and the immediate period following and is told by July who was born once a slave but is now an old free woman, living in the house of her first born - now a publisher-  raised and educated by a Baptist minister and his wife  as he was their own (almost). He adds sometimes his version of the  crude story, closer to a historic account of the years 1820-1850, to July’s colorful, intimate account. And is July’s ingenuity (or her stubborn refusal to judge the past) which brings out the intrinsic humanity of the story and its personages. The human factor that makes it possible for Levy’s The Long Song to tell a story about the past and not present an interpretation of it.

There is the story of Amity’s first master, Mr. John Howarth. Haughty, impetuous British slave owner who was not able to overcome the death of his wife and first born in childbirth. Yet it is the callousness of his peers that crushes him.

As there is Robert Goodwin, the last master of Amity who makes it in the story. He came from England with a mission – to change the way the former slaves were still treated by land owners. But as he faces a reality that does not agree with his beliefs he will turn back after a complete change of heart.

July’s mom and dad, Kitty and Tam Dewar, both ‘beastly’ –one in appearance and the other one in hearth.

An outlook on race and happyness built on the dreams of the women frequenting Miss Clara’s ballroom dances: “Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the color of your pickney will be raised. For the mullato who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon who enjoys white relations will give this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino …oh, the mustiphino’s child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person.”(p.189)

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