With The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers has written a social novel that questions some of the most entrenched myths of our times. He takes on the ambiguities of racial identity in 20th century America with more veracity than most writers since James Baldwin’s novels of the 1960’s. The story succeeds in painting impressionistic vistas of how our identities are chosen for us despite how we might see ourselves. And the interpersonal dilemmas here inevitably merge with a national struggle to overcome race, with unsettling consequences for all of the people we meet.
The novel’s matriarch is Delia Daley. She hails from a proud African-American family from Philadelphia. She works as a nurse to earn money for her classical voice lessons; her dream is to follow in the footsteps of Marian Anderson. Easter weekend, 1939, she travels to the capital to attend Anderson’s concert on the National Mall and there she meets David Strom in the massive crowd. He is a German Jew who has fled Europe just ahead of the Nazis. David is a quantum physicist but also an amateur singer with abundant knowledge and appreciation of classical music. When he hears Delia singing along with Anderson, he falls for her, and, in turn, his attention and praise captures her heart. Yet, Delia knows enough about her countrymen to tell him they can’t see each other again. “It’s impossible,” she says. The crowd’s indifference on the National Mall does not represent the nation’s true temper.
Then, a stranger abruptly changes the direction of her life. A boy who has lost his family in the crowd cries out terrified. In the ensuing moments, she and David pacify the child, acting as surrogate parents until he finds his brother. He quickly trusts them equally, takes both of their hands, and they walk together, improbably, to the Lincoln Memorial. The image Powers has drawn for us is a makeshift family, a promise of the future, juxtaposed by the gatekeeper of an inequitable past. Delia and David see themselves with this child and decide, privately but equally, that he has been sent to them to forecast a future in which they need not fear the sum of their love.
Powers is a savvy storyteller, and one of the ways he draws us into his world is by the repetition of his characters’ most treasured anecdotes. The scene on the Mall with the lost boy is replayed in David’s mind several times. We see it again through Delia’s daydreams. Even their middle child (and our narrator), Joseph, recalls the family lore half a century later when he brings his two nephews to the Mall to hear Minister Farrakhan speak. His memory distills the Stroms’s doubt and hope and failure over three generations. Thus, David and Delia’s story germinates from a real boy, but almost instantly becomes mythologized. “The bird and the fish can live together,” the Stroms sing in the safety of their Morningside Heights apartment. Maybe so, but as we watch the 20th century unravel, we see that the Stroms must not only confront society’s murky ideals, but their own.
David and Delia marry, and they pour their optimism into their three children. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth become the unwitting subjects of their parents’ social experiment, fueled by the optimism of an isolated moment and a hope polished so fervently it has no choice but to shine. When each of the Strom kids inevitably asks their parents, “What are we?” their parents respond: you must decide for yourself. You can be whatever you want.
Powers wisely uses broad strokes, fixing the Stroms and Daley’s lives within the greater story of our country. We relive in gruesome detail the murder of Emmett Till; Delia has to explain to her sons how this could happen to a boy their age. And yet, horrid as it is, at least the crime happens from afar. Soon, the Stroms find themselves flirting with chaos in person. For example, when the brothers tour the U.S. in the late 1960’s, protests and street battles always happen to spring up a day before or after their arrival. They avert disaster by a handful of hours each time. Their near encounters with the country’s racial touchstones is hardly believable. Yet, what Powers loses in verisimilitude he gains in his characters’ moral development: the children see their parents’ fundamental error by looking through the prism of an exploding America. The world did care who and what they were. Such iconic moments keep the novel from becoming a fairy tale. Without the historical bloodshed, we’d likely write off the preternaturally gifted Jonah and Joseph as unlikely elitists, the fortunate sons of parents naïve enough to believe that their offspring might live outside the most entrenched rules of their land.
Race is the myth that America has agreed to endorse, thus it is the one that the Stroms must try to ignore. But it is always already informing our interactions. No wonder, then, that the Strom children feel fully formed as their racial identities evolve beyond their parents’ idealistic dream. By shedding the false skin of a colorblind world they finally must make their own decisions. Jonah strolls into the Watts riots to get a glimpse of the venom he’s been sheltered from. A looter mistakes him for being white, and puts a gun to his head; he escapes with his life only because the otherworldly sound he produces distracts his would-be murderer. Joseph trades in his Julliard education for playing lounge versions of Motown songs. And Ruth fully rejects her post-racial upbringing by her 18th birthday. She meets a militant man, joins the Black Panthers, and engages in subversive activities. It is here, in the genesis of this generation’s adulthood—about halfway into the novel—that we see them for who they are: three bi-racial children of different skin tones, yes. More crucially, though, they are three people whose immersions into America’s greatest myth are now unique, and thus, finally, memorable.