Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Long Song.
This vivid historical saga set on the island paradise of Jamaica
authentically captures the spirit of the island. The landscapes of the sugarcane
fields provide a luxuriant locale for Levy’s exuberant tale of the slave trade and the Baptist War, the ten-day rebellion of 1832 that mobilized as many as 60,000 of the slave population to eventual emancipation. Even when freedom was overshadowed by the violence of the English settlers, Levy casts an intimate net over Miss July, a pretty but mischievous negro slave whose voice anchors much of this exotic tale.
July’s story is one of struggle and heartbreak, beginning with her mother, Kitty, who gives birth to her at the hands of the cruel Scottish overseer of the Amity sugar plantation. Meanwhile, Mr. John Howarth
proves himself to be the true master of Amity, but he fears his meddling sister, Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, and her propensity for dipping into everything upon the plantation. It’s the rather indelicate Caroline who harbors a natural curiosity for the negroes, who seem “like solid little shadows prancing about before her."
When her maidservant abruptly dies, Caroline is at once held in thrall to the infant “pickney” July. Convinced that she will be a companion, Caroline steals her from Kitty, trains her to be her lady’s maid, then establishes her in Amity as her own personal slave. Now renamed “Marguerite,” July joins the chorus of “indolent house slaves” in the service of this cruel and demanding woman.
Finding a measure of comfort with the headman, Godfrey, and the cook, Hannah, July transforms from a "filthy negro child."
Accustomed only to working in the fields, she soon turns into the missus’s favorite lady's maid. As one “who boasted her papa to be a white man,” July becomes an excitable young woman but also troublesome with her crafty black eyes and skinny nose,
her narrow smile of indolence belying a mischievousness that can twist her missus “to any bidding and tease.”
The author weaves in Jamaica’s slow, rumbling violence with Caroline Mortimer’s own cycle of abuse and punishment toward July as the fires rage “like beacons from plantation and pen.”
The arrival of Robert Goodwin temporarily turns July and Caroline’s world upon its head. Determined to take "kindness to the negro" and to show them compassion, Robert believes wholeheartedly that slavery is an abomination.
He watches July, enthralled and motionless, his blue eyes gaze with a foolish yearning, his heart troubled by the sudden attraction he feels for his new “negro house servant.”
Every Negro believes and hopes themselves to have been freed by the Queen of England, yet the desperate and evil machinations of those at the Amity plantation end up taking center stage in this story as Caroline, John and Robert become evermore determined in their efforts to retain their tenuous power over their human possessions.
Levy pulls no punches in her horrific descriptions of the incessant cruelty and the bigotry of the whites and of the defenseless Negros, who secretly mock their masters while aching for a better life. Resonant and disturbing, this novel is an impressive condemnation of the author’s Jamaican heritage. In an indifferent society, the constant glaring acts of violence lead every slave to shake off the burdens of bondage, to throw the handcuffs, chains and iron collars into the long-awaited grave, where they will “clatter on top of slavery’s ruin.”