A Million Nightingales, Susan Straight, Pantheon Books, 2006, 333 pp
Part Four: Susan Straight Week
In A Million Nightingales, her fifth novel, Susan Straight achieves parity with the writing that made Toni Morrison one of my top three most admired novelists: a perfect amalgam of intelligence, empathy and artistry.
This novel is a slave story, and like the Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, it takes hundreds, maybe thousands of stories to encompass these huge, life altering events. Fiction, biography, memoir, as well as history books are all required to bring the tales of individual human beings, locations and the legacies of the past forward to people who live now.
Through Moinette, daughter of a Louisiana slave and a white sugarcane planter, we get an entire society and socio-economic world set in a discreet location. Susan Straight has said that she combined the stories of slave ancestors told by her in-laws with extensive research. By sheer artistic genius she transmuted it all into the life of Moinette and created a woman whose experiences made her a strong survivor.
It is a horrific tale but left me with huge love and admiration for Moinette, who was a "cadeau-fille" or "gift girl", because her mother, Marie-Therese was gifted to a visiting white planter for an evening's entertainment. Various characters present gifts to Moinette, in the form of education, protection and funds which enable her to survive. Cephaline, the rebellious daughter of Moinette's first master, who lived only to study, read and write, passed on the skill of reading to Moinette. Between Marie-Therese and Cephaline, though their words and teaching differed, Moinette worked out the basics of survival for a mixed-blood slave woman.
As in all of Ms Straight's novels, motherhood is a strong factor, as is a love of language and an implacable urge for freedom. She makes it clear that personal freedom is attained and maintained through strength, intelligence, extreme wariness and plenty of luck. Even with all of those elements in place in any individual, there are absolutely no guarantees because human beings are also capable of depths of weakness, stupidity and unawareness. Furthermore, life is random including weather and dangerous environments. These are the lessons and realities of Moinette's life.
One of the great benefits of reading an author's novels from earliest to most recent is seeing the development of the author herself. I see A Million Nightingales as Susan Straight's finest, most powerful novel. In answer to the question of what she wanted readers to take away she says, "I'd like them to take away a few hours of having lived like someone else." I have taken that from all of her novels so far, but more than ever in this one.