Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing

Spanning a period from 1939 to the present, Richard Powers remarkable new book, The Time of Our Singing, delves with a Janusian eye into history, through World War II and Vietnam to present time; its radar tracking racism, scientific theories of time, music’s evolution and the emotional lives of three generations of one family profoundly effected by it all.

The young couple meets at the Washington mall in 1939 at the epochal performance of Marian Anderson, a world-class African American singer whose song, at the foot of the Washington monument, is ultimately ironic. It is there David Strom, a white German/Jewish immigrant, meets Delia Daley, a classically trained singer, an African American doctor?s daughter from Philadelphia. An unusual connection is made when the pair discover a lost boy in the crowd and assist the child in finding his family. It was there and then the two fall in love, but the path to their love was destiny.

David and Delia marry and produce three fine children Joseph, Jonah and Ruth. Needless to say the issue of mixed race enters the tale before it?s begun and saturates it throughout. While David?s family are lost to the Nazis during the war, Delia’s own family retreat when the young couple decide they will raise their offspring “beyond race”.

The children are an amazing combination, the best of both parents. Exceptional, all three seem to have music in their blood. The family, who spend evenings immersed in music soon realize that young Jonah is a prodigy with the voice of an angle. His brother Joseph, who is devoted to his older sibling, learns to accompany him on piano. The boys are home-schooled until it becomes evident that Jonah will suffer unless his gift is properly trained. Off to private school he goes with Joseph tagging along for support, flying uncertainly on his bother’s coattails, while little Ruth feels abandoned by both of her siblings.

The story is tragic on a grand scale, the sense of loss profound. The boys having lived under the protective aura of their parents are not prepared for the ravages of the world, steeped in anti-Semitism, racism and hatred. But, the boys learn quickly and spend their youth hiding their traumas to protect their naive parents.

Only Ruth grows to hate the life and what she sees as the failing of her parents to deal with reality. “The bird and the fish can fall in love, but where can they make their nest?” The story unfolds as each of the Strom children suffer the loss of their mother, struggle in search of identity and create what they can of a life. Joseph, who narrates the story, tells the sad tale of living in his brother’s shadow and of Ruth?s forays into the militant world of the Black Panther party. It?s all here, everything from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the beating of Rodney King and the Million Man March. The book reaches across time and back again, another metaphor simultaneously conveyed to readers by the physicist David Strom, whose preoccupation with the subject prevents him from seeing the lives of his children now.

The book is artfully written with music as a central metaphor and emotional anchor. Powers literally sings the heart– from graceful passages of musical evenings spent with the Storm family singing “Crazed Quotations” to the hymns of mourning after Delia’s tragic death in a fire. Powers is so articulate even a musical novice will feel the emotive power of song throughout this amazing novel– songs of love, rage, triumph, passion, courage and loss– songs ringing in the hearts seasons while heralding the turning points of history.

It’s a complex piece of literary architecture that weaves elements of music, history, and time, like a chrysalis spinning out from the foundation of the Storm family, giving birth to itself in a surprising end that is the book’s own beginning.

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