When Marie-Thérèse, an African, kidnapped and
sold into slavery is given as a gift for the night to her master's guest,
a nameless visiting white sugar broker, she in return receives her own
gift, a daughter who is all she lives for. The child who she names Moinette
is known as a 'cadeau-fille' — or 'gift girl' — conceived
after a rape.
Now 14 years old Moinette slowly begins to realise the suffering world
she has been born into. As she travels upriver by steamboat, she passes
a plantation where the decapitated heads of runaway slaves are raised
on pikes along the shore. She witnesses, a house slave staked to the
ground for two days and her face gnawed by rats, a grotesque punishment
for leaving her mistress alone for a few hours at night as she tended
her own sick child.
Yes A Million Nightingales is a story about slavery but it is also much
more than that, it is a story about a young mixed-race woman coming to
know herself, where she came from and where she fits in the world around
Author Susan Straight has done her homework and A
Million Nightingales is well researched and hauntingly uncomfortable.
Herself the mother of three mixed-race daughters Susan said she became
obsessed with reading about people like her children. 'I read an account
of a mixed-race woman in 1800s Louisiana. She was a slave until she was
thirty, then was bought and freed, but had to buy her own son, and she
owned him. The concept of owning your own child, legally, was frightening
and fascinating. According to the law then, he could not be freed until
he was 21, and so his mother had to come up with ways to raise him in
that state. I wanted to write a novel about a mother and son like that,
set in the past, to understand how presently it is still hard to love
each other, and raise each other, with that kind of legacy.'
Susan says A Million Nightingales is the first book
in a trilogy, the second is a story collection about the descendants
of that freed woman, people who now live in southern California. And
the third is another novel about her descendants raising an abandoned
child of a Mexican migrant worker.
The book's title comes from a lyric quoted by a Jewish
man living at risk in Louisiana, where Jews are forbidden by law to establish
residence: 'I have a million nightingales on the branches of my heart
singing freedom,' he said softly. 'My grandmother knew someone who sang
that. So always someone is not free.'