A Million Nightingales is a revelation of style and acuity of vision, the characters human, flawed, fragile and brave, the story following the dangerous path of beautiful fourteen-year-old Moinette, , a petite mulatresse slave, through the treacherous world of early nineteenth-century Louisiana, recently acquired from the French, a strange mix of race and regulations.
Moinette is sheltered, her mother instilling caution in her child, exercising her own: “Lie down make me too rested. Lie down mean I can’t watch.” Moinette’s language, as well, is spare, yet these precious words bring the girl comfort as she turns them over in her mind like prayers. Sold without warning, Moinette is carried to a plantation far from her mother where the years pass slowly, assaulted at every turn in a society that views her as property, her one chance at love lost because she cannot bear to leave her small son behind.
Moinette’s son, Jean-Paul, sees his mother sporadically, their relationship altered by the distance of the early years and her inability to set him free or protect him from the world at large - a world of Indians, Africans, Americans, French, and English, field hands, masters, tradesmen, slave-catchers, lawyers and ladies, a mélange of race and heritage often at odds.
Moinette’s life is defined through her association with these characters, caught in a web of time and circumstance. Through difficult years of patience and negotiation, she continues to be the subject of random savagery, but Moinette survives the brutality of her existence, finally a haven for others less fortunate, a poignant example of the indestructibility of the human spirit.
Susan Straight writes the story of this young woman with the untempered cruelty representative of the times, the impossible conundrum of choices facing the slave, especially a female, who seeks to free herself from the yoke of oppression. That she does so with grace and elegance is s testament to the author’s understanding of the human condition, for Moinette is filled with the words and experiences of those before her, the slaves who developed a culture that survived the brutality of their existence, their spirits living in song and the inordinate strengths of the long-suffering who refuse to submit their souls.
Carrying her mother in her heart, nurturing the precious memories gleaned from her own experiences, Moinette creates an inner life that sustains her and passes that love to her son, although she cannot save him, and the young slaves she buys, planning to set them free. This is a novel of courage, the beauty born of pain, transformed and reborn to lighten the burdens of others.
One of a sea of faces in all shades, Moinette endures, constructing an interior life, improvising family to recreate what was lost. To find beauty where there is little, to give when you have nothing, to die serene rather than bitter, such is Moinette’s legacy: “I have a million nightingales on the branches of my heart singing freedom.”