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shocked and distressed by the idea of
But her family makes them a wed-
ding, after the couple are married by a
justice of the peace. David and Delia
jump the broom, in family tradition,
"so that all the bad past that ever hap-
pened to you — is swept away by this
broom," as Delia's mother explains to
her newly acquired son-in-law.
he color line -- which the
eminent sociologist W.E.
DuBois described 100
years ago as "the problem
of the 20th century" — winds its way
through Richard Powers' remarkable
new novel, The Time of Our Singing
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $28).
Sometimes more arced than
Cut Off From Family
straight, that line surrounds the mul-
The Stroms raise and nourish their
tiracial Strom family as though to
three children on music. "Singing,
protect them, but ultimately the
they spoke the same language. In
racism they don't speak of seeps
music they always found their pitch,"
Powers, a 45-year-old author
of seven previous novels who has
been awarded a MacArthur
Fellowship and other honors,
unravels a story that spans about
60 years and loops around in
His narrative is energized with
rich and sensitive descriptions,
set pieces that transport the
It's a novel that explores many
themes in its more than 600
pages, most prominently race
and identity, music and time,
love and family.
Albert Einstein makes a cameo
appearance, and events like the
1955 murder of Emmett Till
and the 1965 Watts riots shade
in the background.
The novel opens in 1961, but
the story begins in 1939, with a
scene described later on in the
According to the author, racism is not
novel, when David Strom, a
driven only by fear of difference but
Jewish emigre scientist from
Germany, and Delia Daley, _a
by fear of similari ty.
black Philadelphian studying
music, meet each other at the
historic concert Marian Anderson
Nightly, in their home in upper
gave on the Washington Mall.
on the border between
Their shared passion for music
makes for a profound and loving con-
nection across their apparent differ-
ences, and they marry, at a time when
Their eldest son, Jonah, is a musical
their union is illegal in many states.
prodigy with a voice that will be
Strom, an atheist, a great-grandson
internationally acclaimed; the middle
of a cantor, doesn't know the fate of
son, Joseph, is also very talented and
his family, trapped in Europe, while
is his brother's accompanist and pro-
her family — she's the daughter of a
tector in rhe world; the youngest,
physician and "generations of
Carolina church-going mothers" — is
pursues other things. •
They grow up cut off from extend-
ed families on both sides; separately
and together, they face moments of
hatred large and small.
A professor at Columbia, David
Strom's field is theoretical physics,
with a special interest in the study of
time. And the theme of time is 'woven
through this novel in . every direction
— in its very structure of fractured
time, in its descriptions of musical
movements, and in the ways that
David and Delia try to create a future
where their children can live "beyond
As much as they set their formida-
ble wills on this future tense, the past
— their very different pasts —
comes blustering through.
The novel follows black-Jewish
relations as they are played out across
the family, and beyond them.
David tells his father-in-law that
he is not white but a Jew, in a con-
versation that breaks their ties. And
after Delia's tragic death, when Ruth
and her father travel to Washington,
D.C., together in 1963 to hear
Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth is
already ashamed of her white father.
"The black-Jewish alliance is crum-
bling all around them. It won't even sur-
vive the bus ride home," Powers writes.
Breaking with her father, Ruth
runs away and joins the Black
The most devoted to their father,
Joseph is the sometimes narrator,
negotiating between his sister's mili-
tant lifestyle and his brother's travels
in the white musical world.
At David's deathbed, Joseph
rebukes the old man for not telling
them of his family history, depriving
them of a sense of continuity and
In a recent interview, Powers, who
teaches at the University of Illinois in
Urbana-Champaign, called the rela-
tionship between the Afro-American
and Jewish communities "a huge and
highly charged interaction."
"You cannot simply walk into this ter-
rain without feeling how volatile and
painful are the times and the barriers the