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Richard Powers sings America’s bittersweet song

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The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers‘ most recent addition to his oeuvre, is the kind of novel that comes so close to perfection that a reader asks ‘How?’ How does he know all the things he does? How was he able to incorporate them into the novelistic form? How does he manage to live in a society that hates very bright people like the Joker hates Batman and survive, not to mention achieve all he has?

The book is about the Strom family. The parents, Delia and David, meet at Marian Anderson‘s historical performance in front of the Lincoln memorial in 1939. Anderson had been barred from performing in Constitution Hall because the Daughters of the American Revolution, its owners, did not want it soiled by a Negro’s presence. Despite the fact Delia cannot even drop into a coffee shop with David in segregated Washington, D.C., the classically trained singer and the physicist from Germany fall in love.

Though they have only one family between them, hers, because his has been lost in the Holocaust, the couple decides to raise its children for a colorblind society. However, they are attempting an impossible task. Perhaps somewhere in the future tides of time a colorblind American society exists. But, the Stroms’ marriage will not be legal in a third of the states until 1967. (Delia will be dead by then.) De facto segregation denies them housing in New York City until a kind African-American widow takes pity. Delia is spat on during public outings and learns to ride in the backseat of cars, as if she is a servant, when her husband is driving. The doctors who deliver the three children insist on classifying them as ‘colored’ on their birth certificates.

The children are never deceived by their parents’ efforts to shelter them from reality. In fact, they become the shelterers instead of the sheltered. From early childhood, the boys, Johan and Joseph, live in a permeable world of two. Homeschooled musical prodigies, they realize they are something taboo in the white world in which they live. Exile to a music school in Boston gives them more experience as pariahs. The youngest child, Ruth, becomes the most emotionally scarred of the three. When her mother dies in an accidental fire, based on what she has observed in her ten years, she believes it is murder. All three lack any experiences that shed light on racism from their African-American heritage because their parents have severed all contact with the Daleys.

How does Richard Powers, a white man reared without the burdens that trammel people of color, know the reality of race in America? Margie Thomson has chronicled his journey from musical whiz kid to polymathic author.

The key to Powers’ writing is to be found in his life. He was born in 1957 in Chicago and, while still a boy, discovered music. He trained in the cello and vocal music but also plays guitar, clarinet and saxophone.

In Understanding Richard Powers, American literature professor Joseph Dewey writes of Powers’ ““restless curiosity”. I suppose that’s one way of describing his educational path which meandered through paleontology, oceanography and archaeology before choosing physics at the University of Illinois.

. . .He wrote his first novel in the early 1980s and several more since then and is considered one of the most important writers of his generation. It is that “aerial view”, that sense of the connectedness of all things, that is his dominant concern in his life and writing. The Time of Our Singing embodies this very thing.

With this novel, Powers has penned a major monument to that journey that transcends the boundary of race as few novels ever do. He knows racism intimately, without having had to experience it himself. And, he is able to express that knowledge clearly and convincingly.

The novel is tragic because lives scarred by the dehumanization that is the core of racism are inevitably painful. Yet, such lives can be inextricably bound to pleasure in doing well against the odds, something each of the young Stroms achieves. Johan becomes a virtuoso of classical music, a driving force who cannot be ignored. Narrator Joseph achieves measurable success as his brother’s accompanist and the bass in a groundbreaking early music vocal group. Ruth, who despite being a broken vessel, reunites the Stroms with the Daleys, becomes the founder of a miracle working school in Oakland.

But, this is not some fantasy written to promote up by their bootstraps mythology. The Stroms bear the wounds of being ‘the wrong color’ in America. Johan is a self-centered, self-destructive man who feels most alive during America’s recurring race riots, which he comes to seek out. Conciliatory Joseph sacrifices himself to Johan’s whims and never seems to realize his own worth. Ruth is like a horse, frightened as a colt, who will remain skittish ever after.

I considerJonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections an excellent literary examination of an American family. But, The Time of Our Singing is that and much, much more.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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  • Eric Olsen

    MD, excellent review, thanks.