The Long Song

Finding Humanity In Jamaica’s Last Days Of Slavery
by Jane Ciabattari

Andrea Levy’s Small Island, which won England’s 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction and Whitbread Book of the Year awards, traced the experiences of a Jamaican-born RAF volunteer and his teacher wife as they settled in 1948 London (the PBS series drawn from the novel aired in April). It was based in part upon the lives of Levy’s parents’ generation. Her new book, The Long Song, is a remarkable and profoundly imagined re-creation of plantation life in the waning days of slavery in 1830s Jamaica.

Levy infuses her new novel with historical references and authentic details. She also has a wicked sense of humor. “It was finished almost as soon as it began,” she writes in her opening lines, describing the act that results in the conception of her narrator July, a bold, engaging and keenly observant mulatto: “Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together in a crowd.”

July agrees to write down her story at the urging of her grown son, who will print and bind it. She starts with her birth to Kitty, a field slave. “Her mother’s arms … were as robust as the legs of a horse in full gallop.” July tells how, as a child, she was plucked from her mother’s side to become a companion and house servant to the plantation owner’s sister Caroline, a widow newly arrived from England. Caroline gives July a new name, Marguerite, and teaches her to read and write, skills usually forbidden to slaves.

Levy is masterful at orchestrating the complex intimacies among those living together in the plantation owner’s “great house.” During the bloody 1832 slave rebellion, July finds the fearful Caroline clinging to her for protection. During those three days, July reports, “when those fires raged like beacons from plantation and pen; when regiments marched and militias mustered; when slaves took oaths upon the Holy Bible to fight against white people with machete, stick and gun,” Caroline was safe.

The relationship between the two women becomes more complicated when a new overseer marries Caroline and settles in upstairs, while indulging his lust for July in a basement boudoir. Not surprisingly, the new master’s sweet-talk — “You are my real wife,” he tells July, and, “This is my real home” — turns sour before long.

Levy lends humanity to even the most brutal of her characters in this saga of hardship and cruelty, cruelty and resistance. She seasons her solemn tale with moments of comedy, even farce. But the stroke of genius that makes this radiant novel soar is the forthright, courageous, captivating and indomitable July.

Excerpt: ‘The Long Song’
by Andrea Levy

Kitty, July’s mama, gave birth to her in her dwelling hut. For eight long hours Kitty did pace about that hut — first five steps in one direction, then a further five in the other. All the while with her palms pressed to the small of her back, for she feared the protrusion at her belly had the might to pitch her pell-mell on to the ground. The coarse linen shirt she wore was so sodden with sweat as to appear to be made of gauze, and did bind about her tight as a dressing. At times she stopped in her feverish pacing to place her hands high upon the wall, lean her weight on to her arms and pant with the fury of a mad dog.

Kitty’s perspiration was turning the soil underneath her feet to a slippery layer of mud. So Rose, the woman who was attending her, requested that Kitty stoop a little that she might be permitted to mop her face and neck with rags — for Kitty was nearly six feet tall and Rose no more than four. Rose had had two children in her childbearing days — one was delivered stiff as stale bread and the other was sold away before she had properly finished suckling him. But she was the favoured attendant for births upon the plantation, for children born by her physic thrived with the vigour of the most indulged white missus child. But Kitty would not stoop to permit Rose to wipe her. Rose was forced to jump, like some feeble house slave charged to dust a high shelf, to brush the cloth across Kitty’s forehead.

Neither would Kitty smell the bunch of sticks that Rose wafted around her, ‘Come, it will soothe. Smell,’ Rose insisted. When, finally, Rose pushed the smelly bundle against Kitty’s nose, Kitty began at once to choke upon their pungency. She then wrested the sticks from out Rose’s hand and threw them upon the ground. The strip of goat skin with which Rose had wanted to rub Kitty’s bucking belly had Kitty crying out, ‘No touch me, no touch me!’ Fortuitously for Rose, she ducked just before Kitty’s hand lashed out to swipe her across the room — for it was performed with such fierceness that the diminutive Rose would surely have found herself embedded within the wattle of the wall.

Then Rose pleaded that at least Kitty should eat some mouthfuls of breadfruit that had been left for her. When Kitty refused, Rose ate it herself while repeating, in tones that ranged from commanding to begging, that Kitty should squat upon the mattress to find relief from the pain of this birthing. For over an hour did Rose implore her, until Kitty, screeching louder than a cockerel before the dawn, cried, ‘Hush, Miss Rose — me caan suffer yer jabber no more.’

But Kitty did at that moment fall upon her knees and, with her heavy belly brushing the dirt floor, crawl upon the mat. Soon the trash, which was the substance of her mattress, was soaked through with Kitty’s sweat — it squelched underneath her as she writhed, tormented, for some position that might ease her pain. But at last Rose could reach all the parts of Kitty that she required in order to commence her fabled physic. Rose, calling from the door of the hut, commanded some children to fill a pail with water from the river. She then cursed at the tiny drip of water that the useless pickney handed her back, before shooing them from the dwelling. But Rose dipped in a rag and pressed the cool water against Kitty’s dry and cracked lips.

It was after a further two hours that Kitty began to howl. Kneeling upon the mattress, her hands upon the wall, she screamed that this pain was like no other that she had endured. Oh come, driver, lash her, brand and scorch her, for Kitty was sure no trifling pain of human kind could ever injure her again. This pain was jumbiemade; its claws were digging deep inside her so this child might be born.

‘Me must dead, Miss Rose,’ Kitty roared. ‘Me must dead!’

‘Pickney soon come, soon come now,’ Rose tenderly whispered.

‘Pickney no come. Me must dead here,’ Kitty wailed.

It was then the overseer, Tam Dewar, entered in upon the dwelling shouting, ‘Why is there so much noise? Shut up, damn you. My head aches from it!’

Aroused from his supper table by the unholy row that had reached his ears, he was breathing heavy as a man sorely vexed. Until, that is, the stench from within Kitty’s dwelling began to assail him. His face, that had been wrinkled with fury, began to contort into a sickened grimace — like he was chewing upon rancid meat. He placed his lamp upon the ground so he might better rummage for his handkerchief to muffle his nose and mouth, before exclaiming through the cloth, ‘What is happening in here?’

Rose, curtseying to the overseer, said, ‘She birthing, massa — soon come,’ while Kitty quickly laid herself down flat upon the mattress, covering up as best she could with the wet cloth of her shirt. She set herself to be still and raised her eyes to look upon Tam Dewar’s crooked face. In the cast of the lamplight his mouth looked all the more twisted, his hairless head all the more like it was crowned with the shell of an egg. But Kitty could not be quiet for long, for a pickney the size of the moon was pushing out from within her. She let forth a yell so fierce that it buckled Tam Dewar at his knees and caused him to wince as if it were he that had the greater affliction.

‘Be quiet, be quiet, I tell you!’ he squealed before commanding Rose, ‘Stop up her mouth!’

Rose gazed upon this man in puzzlement. ‘Stuff up her mouth with rags, come on, come on,’ he insisted once more. Rose took a rag, dipping it in the water from the pail and brushed it against Kitty’s lips. But Tam Dewar, exhaling with annoyance, commanded, ‘Not like that!’ He snatched at the rag that Rose held, then forced the damp cloth down into Kitty’s mouth. ‘Like this, you fool, like this.’

Rose protested, ‘Massa, she birthin’, she birthin’!’ as Kitty choked to accommodate the bulk of cloth in her mouth. Soon Kitty bit down hard to catch the overseer’s finger within her teeth, for this white man’s fist was blocking her throat.

‘Damn you,’ he wailed. He wrenched his finger from her bite, then whipped back his hand to slap Kitty around the head.

Rose hastened to stand between Kitty and this white man saying, ‘She birthin’, massa, she birthin’, massa . . .’ for she could see this man was preparing to strike Kitty again. ‘Pity, massa, pity, no lash her, she birthin’, massa,’ Rose pleaded.

Tam Dewar threw the tiny figure of Rose aside and was ready to strike Kitty once more, for the impertinence that still throbbed at his fingertips. While Kitty, cowering from the coming blow, wrapped one arm around her massive belly and thrust out a splayed hand at this man to keep him far from her. And in that moment, Tam Dewar was stilled. He stared at her then dropped his raised hand. He knelt down next to Kitty, palms raised, saying, ‘Shhhh, shhhh,’ to calm her as he spoke softly to her. ‘My sister has sent me some strawberry conserve from Scotland. It’s very fine. Delicious. I was just eating it, but then the noise you were making . . . I cannot stand the noise. I have a pain in my head, you see, that I cannot remove. So you must be quiet.’ He lifted up the lamp so Kitty might behold his earnest face. She saw a dollop of strawberry jam upon his cheek and smelled the sweet confection upon his breath. He turned, as if to leave, but then, leaning over again said, ‘Hush, Kitty or I’ll take a whip to you, so help me, God, I will, because I cannot stand the noise.’

Kitty made no reply to this man, but bit down hard upon the cloth that was still within her mouth so she would make no sound that could cause his mood to change. For Kitty had managed to live without feeling the lash from his whip for four years. But this white man had fathered the child she was birthing and if he was not gone soon, she thought to rise from the mattress, grab this ugly bakkra by the leg, swing him above her head and hurl him like a piece of cane so far-far that he would land head first in a heap of trash upon some other talked of island. But she just bit harder upon the rags, as he, pressing his handkerchief once more to his nose, stood up as if to take his leave. He made two steps before remembering a thought. Heedful to point at both his slaves in turn he said, ‘And be careful with that wee baby — it will be worth a great deal of money.’

When the pickney was finally released from within Kitty she yelled with so mighty an exhalation that the trees bent as if a hurricane had just passed. Tam Dewar, startled by that immense cry, banged his fist hard upon his supper table and his precious strawberry conserve did topple down to spill upon the floor.