THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The barbarity of slavery bared

An epic story of Jewish involvement in human bondage

Alan Cheuse, in “Song of Slaves in the Desert,’’ uses language that is often spare and beautiful. Alan Cheuse, in “Song of Slaves in the Desert,’’ uses language that is often spare and beautiful.
By Roberta Silman
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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Alan Cheuse, the regular and generous-spirited book reviewer on NPR, is also a teacher, editor, and writer. In his latest work of fiction, “Song of Slaves in the Desert,’’ Cheuse has written an ambitious story about slavery with an interesting twist. Although only a small percentage of plantation owners in the South were Jewish, Cheuse has conjured one of those families — the fictional Pereiras, who came from Spain by way of the Antilles to Charleston, S.C. In this sweeping epic, which takes place in the decade before the Civil War, Cheuse intersperses his Charleston tale with the voices of the Africans who left Timbuktu and with each generation became more and more imprisoned in the bondage known as slavery.

At its most straightforward, this is the story of Nathaniel Pereira, a naive young man sent by his father from New York to “research’’ life at the rice plantation owned by his Uncle Abraham in Charleston with the goal, perhaps, of having the northern Pereiras invest in the venture. What Nate, who is engaged to a woman in New York, finds and how he copes with his physical attraction for Liza, the favored house slave, is the major narrative thread of this novel. With a large cast of characters, some predictable, some not, Cheuse raises interesting questions about Jewishness and slavery and family and loyalty, and the ability of some men to justify not only their greed but also their baser instincts. Among the more memorable are: Abraham, a seemingly upright man; his wife, Rebecca, who is determined to teach her slaves to read but has not considered the repercussions; their son, Jonathan, whose lust for power and sex leads him to acts of extreme brutality; Isaac, the forbearing and beloved brother figure; Dou, the voice of weariness and resignation and wisdom; and finally Liza, the linchpin of this disturbing book who slithers in and out of the house, in and out of Nate’s mind, and slowly reveals her fierce ability to survive.

The language in the Charleston tale is often spare and beautiful. Here are Liza and Nate at a crossroads:

“ ‘You say you love me . . . Don’t you know that is the cruelest most awful thing you can to tell a woman like me? . . . And do you know why it is so cruel?’

“ ‘No,’ I said in a whisper near her ear. ‘Tell me.’

“ ‘Because I am not free to refuse you. And I am not free to accept you, either. I am just a lonely piece of chattel, do you understand? A Jew-slave, as they call us in town . . .’

“ ‘You hate all these good people. Why?’ [I said.]

“ ‘It was terrible of them to be good to us. Before I learned to read, before I read all those things I read, I didn’t know how much I was hurting.’ ’’

What begins as a gentle comparison between the Jews and their servants — for after all were not the Jews themselves slaves in Egypt? — becomes a story of amazing endurance against savagery so shocking there were times I had to catch my breath. We feel in the most visceral way Nathaniel’s horror and shame at what is slowly revealed to him, and the surprise at the end of this passionate affair turns previous notions of race and power on their head.

Cheuse also deftly immerses us in the daily life of this plantation with wonderful details about rice farming and abortion and child bearing and slave trading and hunting, evoking the natural world, the heat and Southern heaviness with telling precision. And as Nate’s and Liza’s story unfolds, “Song’’ builds to an urgency and wildness reminiscent of Faulkner’s Compson novels.

But this book is subtitled, “A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild.’’ Cheuse is equally interested in how these so-called Jew-slaves are perceived by the society in which they move, and, even more important, how they perceive themselves. He goes back to the 16th century and seems to create a fictional back story for the people who left Africa. I say “seem’’ because there is no way to tell whether these are accepted myths or ones made up by Cheuse. They begin in the 1500s when a group of Africans are fleeing their homes to seek freedom from bondage and safety from natural disasters, only to be kidnapped by camel drivers who bring them to the slave traders and the faraway sea where they board boats and endure humiliations beyond all imaginings through the West Indies to the American South. In his desire to tell the history of slavery, so filled with its own myths and gods, he gives us too much detail; at times this novel feels bloated, stuck in some swampy place from which there was no escape. Although I understand that this could be a metaphor for all those lives sickened and lost, those sections bog down the book, and their many repetitions dilute the wrenching story of the journey taken by Liza’s forbears.

Yet Cheuse also deftly immerses us into the daily life of this plantation with wonderful details about rice farming and abortion and child bearing and slave trading and hunting, evoking the natural world, the heat and Southern heaviness with telling precision. And as Nate’s and Liza’s story unfolds, “Song’’ builds to an urgency and wildness reminiscent of Faulkner’s Compson novels.

If only he had trusted his readers enough to trim the history of slavery sections and resisted the temptation to tie up the loose ends in the concluding chapters narrated by Liza’s son. However, in the end his unflinching look at the vile consequences that resonate for generations from human slavery make “Song’’ a novel to be savored, and remembered.

Roberta Silman is the author of “Somebody Else’s Child,’’ “Blood Relations,’’ “Boundaries,’’ “The Dream Dredger,’’ and “Beginning The World Again.’’ She can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild
By Alan Cheuse
Sourcebooks Landmark, 501 pp., $25.99