Thursday, April 1, 2010

Let Freedom Sing--a review

This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on March 28, 2010. You can listen to the review by going to the audio link to the right of this blog.

Let Freedom Sing: of 19th Century Americans by Vivian B. Kline is a treasure chest of historical research wrapped up in the packaging of a novel. Published in 2009 by Outskirts Press, this imaginative work earned Kline the “Innovator, Educator, Writer Award” at the NAACP’s 54th Annual Dinner in Cincinnati. Besides illuminating the struggle for freed slaves during the difficult Reconstruction period, the author presents a fascinating look at Cincinnati’s role in the art, music, commerce, politics and social change agenda of the late 1800s.

Kline’s premise--and major structural device for the novel--is that a group of 21st Century students have gathered in their Cincinnati classroom to do research on the travels of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in order to eventually turn their collective work into a musical. In this frame story structure, the students are free to write about their findings in any form they find comfortable and are encouraged by their facilitator/teacher to work collaboratively. The historical narrative takes the form of diary entries from Ella Sheppard, letters between Maria Longworth Nichols and Susannah Gilbert, linked together with some actual narrative passages where characters interact in person. Kline frames the students’ project work with their meetings about what they intend to do, how it’s progressing, and what they finally think about the prospects of turning their historical research into a musical.

At first, I was skeptical that couching this history in multiple viewpoints would work for me as a reader. Fond as I am of unifying, distinctive voices like that of narrator, Jack Crabb, in Little Big Man, I feared I was in for a bumpy read. But Kline is so careful to get her frame story students writing in the language of the era and the stories themselves are so appealing to anyone who cares about local history, that I soon found myself discussing many of these historical figures and events with my friends and family. I was hooked in by the beginnings of baseball and totally captivated by the high-powered literary salons hosted in New York City by the Cary sisters of North College Hill.

And there are plenty of colorful characters to discuss. Here’s a partial list for your consideration: Jenny Lind, the Nightingale Singer, P.T. Barnum, promoter extraordinaire,Horace Greeley who ran unsuccessfully against Grant for the Presidency, Nicholas Longworth the Cincinnati arts patron and wine maker, Mary Todd Lincoln portrayed here as a grieving wife, Frederick Douglass the orator, Robert Duncanson the artist, and the first woman to ever run for President, Vicky Woodhull, among many others. The exciting part about the story for me was finding out the role Cincinnati and Cincinnatians had in shaping the future of Fisk University, a school located all the way down in Nashville.

Vivian B. Kline was led to write this novel when she made a puzzling addition to her collection of historic picture postcards. When no one in our area was able to identify the group of black performers photographed in
antebellum clothing, Mrs. Kline set out to find the story behind the postcard.
A library in Harlem ultimately identified the group as the first Jubilee Singers who traveled the country--and eventually parts of Europe-- to raise funds for their struggling Fisk University. This post card sent Kline on her remarkable research mission that resulted in Let Freedom Sing: of 19th Century Americans which has the interesting subtitle: An Historical Novel, or Could it Be a Musical? With the author already transforming these historical events into dramatic vignettes, letters, and diary entries and the Fisk Jubilee Singers leaving behind a published repertoire of spirituals, can a musical be far behind? Imagine the costumes!

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