Cover image for Song of the shank : a novel
Song of the shank : a novel
Allen, Jeffery Renard, 1962- , author.
Publication Information:
Minneapolis, Minnesota : Graywolf Press, [2014]

Physical Description:
570 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
"In 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere, inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots, who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother."--Page 4 of cover.
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A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era

At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere--inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots--who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom's boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.

Author Notes

Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of the novel Rails Under My Back , the story collection Holding Pattern , and two collections of poetry. Raised in Chicago and now living in New York, he teaches at Queens College and in the writing program at the New School.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Now a fairly obscure historical figure, Tom Wiggins, born a slave, became an international sensation as a pianist. In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure, a blind black boy at a time when his perceived infirmities, including his race, should make him insignificant. Apparently an autistic savant, Tom exhibits both giftedness and odd behavior, which unnerves and enthralls those around him. Allen uses Tom as the central figure as the novel explorescomplex relationships and the interior lives of black and white folks, including a mother with little authority over her child, a fairly benign but self-absorbed slave owner, ambitious promoters, an assortment of orphans and former slaves at wit's end about their future, and a genius oblivious to the tumult around him. Told from various perspectives, shifting between the pre- and post-Civil War periods, Allen's tour de force sweeps from the rural South to New York City and between lonely apartments and raucous refugee camps, encompassing the strife of war and the draft riots. Amid the larger drama of slavery and its injustices, Allen offers the more intimate drama of one young boy's life and the financial and emotional investments involved in the question of what's to be done with his exceptional talent. A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Allen (Rails Under My Back) spent nearly a decade researching and crafting this ambitious but unwieldy novel, based on the true story of "Blind Tom," ne Tom Wiggins, who was born a slave in mid-19th-century Georgia. In this retelling, Allen looks to illuminate Tom's troubled legacy. A blind musical prodigy and so-called autistic savant, Tom played the piano for audiences around the world and was, as a child, the first black American to perform at the White House. "He infuses our best melodies and harmonies with a barbaric element," Tom's master claims. Both the conception and the underlying history behind this story will leave readers with a profound understanding of the inhumanity of slavery and 19th century racial attitudes. This is a dense and admirable book that invites an important excavation of the past, yet ultimately provides neither intimacy nor perspective. Agent: Cynthia Cannell, Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

This long and obscure novel by the PEN Discovery Prize winner of Rails Under My Back is loosely based on the life of Blind Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), a former slave and piano prodigy who achieved some acclaim in the late 1800s. Tom and his music are not the main focus of the novel, however, which instead features hazy, dreamlike scenes initially involving a woman named Eliza, who seems to have known Tom since she worked in an asylum where he was a resident and is now his chief caretaker. As the novel progresses, Tom and Eliza relocate from somewhere in "the country" back to "the city" and then maybe to a place called Edgemere Island; at some point, Tom's real mother sends an emissary to return him to her. Other sections hint at a manager who has made deals to take the pianist on tour, having signed a contract with the landed Southerner who owns Tom. We also encounter a music teacher, some preachers in the vicinity of Edgemere, and a violent confrontation. The Civil War and its aftermath figure prominently in the dark and indeterminate background of the characters' interactions and relocations. VERDICT There is no reason to doubt this highly regarded author's seriousness of purpose, but this remains a challenging work: long, dense, uncompromising, and mysterious. For sophisticated readers.-James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.