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'Song Yet Sung' author to speak at North High

October 24, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Read a Q&A with John McBride

When writing "Song Yet Sung," author James McBride said he simply set out to tell a good story and to debunk a few myths about what it was like for Eastern Shore slaves.

But now, there's an effort to get all Marylanders to read his book.

James McBride will be at North Hagerstown High School at 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 26, as part of the Maryland Humanities Council's One Maryland One Book tour. The tour kicked off Sept. 27 with McBride's appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival's Literary Salon.

McBride, 52, said he is looking forward to the Hagerstown visit because he likes high-schoolers.

"They haven't learned all the tricks of being an adult who covers his or her shortcomings with politics and jive," said McBride in a recent phone interview with The Herald-Mail. "It's just pure."

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One Maryland One Book program's goal is to get Marylanders to read the same book at once - in this case, McBride's "Song Yet Sung" - with hopes that it would encourage discussion about current race relations and diversity in Maryland today, said Andrea Lewis, One Maryland One Book coordinator.

Or at minimum, "encourage people to pick up a book again," Lewis said.

McBride is a writer, professor and musician who lives in Pennsylvania and has an office in New York City. As an author, he's known for his New York Times bestseller "The Color of Water" and his book "The Miracle at St. Anna," inspired a Spike Lee film released in 2008.

Just shy of 400 pages, "Song Yet Sung" is an approachable read, particularly in McBride's use of slave and regional dialect. But this is a suspense novel and is not a book for the squeamish.

"When you say the Underground Railroad, the imagery one conjures up is one hiding a couple of slaves in the attic," said McBride. "It's really a lot more complicated than that."

The plot centers around Liz Spocott, a fictional runaway known as The Dreamer. Through the Dreamer, the book exposes the complex and sometimes macabre set of circumstances that would have faced blacks - free or slave - living in Maryland's Eastern Shore region just before the Civil War.

"The sort of Aesop's Fables approach to somebody talking about the Underground Railroad is not the way to tell it," said McBride, "and you can't really tell the story of the Underground Railroad with out the framework - at least on the Eastern Shore - without the framework of watermen, the land, the terrain, the abolitionists, the Methodists, freed blacks."

Pennsylvania-based researcher Karen James spoke recently at the Washington County Free Library's central branch about Underground Railroad activity in Washington County and other parts of Maryland and nearby Pennsylvania. She said she thought McBride presented a closer-to-accurate assessment of what it would have been like for Eastern Shore slaves and liked the fact that the watermen played such a prominent role in "Song."

"I normally despise historical fiction," James said.

The Maryland Humanities Council's push for a community read-in comes just as the National Endowment of the Arts - the federal agency behind a similar concept, The Big Read - reports that fewer American adults are reading fiction books for fun.

According to the NEA, 50.2 percent of all adults - roughly 112.8 million people - read some form of literature in 2008. This comes after bottoming out at 46.7 percent in 2002, following a two-decade's long drop.

But the bad news: There is a smaller proportion of adults reading fiction books for fun, going from 56.6 percent in 2002, to 54.3 percent in 2008.




If you go ...



WHAT: Meet Maryland Humanities Council's One Maryland One Book author James McBride, author of "Song Yet Sung"

WHEN: 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 26

WHERE: North Hagerstown High School, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., Hagerstown

COST: Free. Seating available on a first-come, first-served basis.

MORE: For more information call the Washington County Free Library, 301-739-3250, ext. 186.

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