A Million Nightingales, by Susan Straight
BOOK REVIEW: A Million Nightingales, by Susan Straight. Anchor (2007). Paperback, 368 pages.
For the Real Help group reading the books recommended by the Association of Black Women’s Historians in response to the book and movie The Help.
A mesmerizing novel. Following the stream-of-consciousness of the narrator, Straight draws the reader in. The early chapters are like seeing what was happening through a veil of Spanish moss. Part of what slavery means for Moinette, the narrator, is a constant state of uncertainty.
The book is set in first decades of the 1800s in the sugar-cane country around New Orleans, a region where French platers retained their own plantations, culture, and language even after the territory had become part of the United States. Moinette is a “gift girl,” the daughter of an African-born mother and a white sugar buyer who visited the plantation. She is very intelligent and observant, as well as full of unanswerable questions and contradictory thoughts. She wonders who she really belongs to: her mother, her owner, the African gods, herself.
The extremely tight bonds between Moinette and her mother are reveled early in the book, and these ties will sustain Moinette long after she is sold off the plantation. The other early relationship critical for Moinette is with the daughter of the plantation family whom Moinette is assigned to serve. The two women are close in age and share interests, but tension between them is strong. Moinette learns to read and accumulates scattered information from the rather unattractive, bookish girl, and they agree “not to hate” each other as a means of mutual survival.
After Moinette is sold off the plantation where she was born, she is very slow to form attachments to other people. She learns how to take care of herself by revealing only what whites want to see. Men use her body without touching her emotionally. She shies away from a man of mixed lineage who loves her and wants to help her escape slavery. At first she is even hesitant about loving her son, in part because he is a quadroon male and particularly vulnerable in a society who wants its quadroons to be female. Only gradually, and not until she is forced to part from him, does she become aware of the closeness she feels toward him. The book follows her life through her successes and the vulnerabilities that plague her and her loved ones even after she gains her freedom.
Susan Straight respects her subjects enough to research them thoroughly rather than simply reproducing stereotypes. In addition, she writes about them with sensitivity, creating a complex, conflicted character in Moinette. I had not known of her before finding this book on the Real Help list, and I am glad to have it recommended. Now I want to find the other books by Straight.
I recommend this book heartily. This is less a story about slavery than a story of how a woman survives as a human being in a world that dehumanizes her and those she loves.