Home > Genre, historic > Book Review: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

Book Review: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

Girl with head leaning on hand.Summary:
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black.  Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location.  She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.

This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post).  I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving.  It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places.  Anyway.  On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.

The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her.  Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her.  This is what I want to discuss first.

There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black.  She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved.  For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people.  Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.

He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal.  He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard.  He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock.  (page 5)

Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact.  Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal.  She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish.  Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem?  We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object.  It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.”  It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.

Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love.  Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son.  She did not even want her son.  This is understandable given that he was the result of rape.  Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him.  She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone.  It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21.  Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice.  Moinette knows the danger of loving someone.  She quite simply states:

I knew my heart was only meat for another animal.  (page 107)

Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved.  She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom.  Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met.  Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self.  Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.

Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help.  Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women.  She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them.  Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women.  The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young.  After she dies, Moinette says:

I missed her voice.  Her words like embroidery in the air.  She didn’t love me.  But I had heard her voice all my life.  (page 98)

How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie.  Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves.  Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina.  Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.

The Men hunted money and sex.  The women were hunted and captured, even the white women.  (page 230)

Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free.  Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair.  What chance is there for women of any color in this society?

Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is.  Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually.  Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.

Sophia said, “Safer in the cane.  Do your work, nobody look.  Dangerous in the house.”  (page 235)

In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play.  Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.

Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female.  Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path.  Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed.  This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook.  Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist.  Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie.  What were the similarities and differences?
  • How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie?  Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
  • Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
  • How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
  • Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
  • Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
  • How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
  • What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?
  1. September 11, 2011 at 11:25 am

    I didn’t get a chance to read the book, but this discussion was helpful anyway. I knew that those enslaved who worked in houses were considered privileged in a way for the easier workload. This is the first time that I was aware that it was dangerous for women, although obvious when given half a thought about it. Thanks.

    • September 11, 2011 at 9:40 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion in spite of not having read the book. (Maybe you’ll pick it up anyway, eh? 😉 )

      That’s the great thing about reading. It helps us notice things or think about things we not have otherwise.

  2. September 12, 2011 at 8:11 am

    I want to read this and was unaware of the Real Help project you and Amy are working on…. I need to check that out.

    • September 21, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Excellent, I hope you will join us, Sheila.

  3. September 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    LOVE your post Amanda, thanks for talking about the mental aspect. As we discussed, I love how we both picked out different but complimentary things in the book 🙂

    To your questions, I don’t think either women were free – Straight did a good job of showing that no women were truly free, but that black women were even less free. And the son clearly had less of a bond with her because she wasn’t around raising him. And I think in the end working in the house worked out well for her – else she’d have never gotten her freedom.

    Clearly a lot more I could say to your questions but it would require a whole post of my own 😉 heh

    • September 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

      I’m so glad you liked what I had to bring to the discussion table, Amy. I think we’re working out to be good partners because we each have different things that we focus in on in stories and so bring more depth to each other’s reading. 🙂

      And as I said on gchat last night, you don’t necessarily have to answer discussion questions directly, as long as they help you to think more in-depth about the story.

  4. September 13, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Thank you for sharing this Amanda, this sounded like an interesting but also heart-breaking read.

    • September 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

      Heart-breaking is an excellent word for it. If I was the type to cry easily, I definitely would have been in tears over the ending.

  5. September 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    A thought-provoking review. Thank you. First, it’s now clear to me that the idea that slaves had it easy in the house and hence the house slave/field slave tension has historically only considered the male slave viewpoint. It is obvious, once it’s pointed out, that the house would be more dangerous for women. But I;d not come across this view before. Secondly, people of mixed race have had it bad and lived a lonely maligned existence for so long. The truth is they are not trusted. Not even now. Thirdly, the perils of being a poor female, black or white, have not abated. And the psychological that you pointed out is sad. Just sad. Thanks for the review.

    • September 21, 2011 at 9:17 am

      I’m so glad you’re participating in the discussions, Kinna. I really respect your opinions.

      It’s a great point that the house vs. field slave perspectives would be different for males. I hadn’t thought about that, perhaps because I am female? It’s interesting to ponder the different types of danger for men and women.

      I tend to bring the psychological into my reviews since I work in the mental health industry. To me one of the key fascinating parts of social justice is how inequality wears down on mental health.

      • September 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm

        Among Black folks, the house/field (often coupled with the N word) is used to denote the extent of brown-nosing or sucking up to white folks. A house n sucks up to white folks, likes hanging out with whites etc. This view (for me anyway) does not consider the risk for female slaves in serving in the house. So then, for female slaves, being female brought on a different level of risk everywhere, whether in the field or in the house.

        I find the discussion question on whether Moinette’s life would have been different if she’d been 100% black interesting. The space for biraciality is so conflicted and fraught with racist assumptions. On one hand, there is the view that they have it a bit easier than their more darker-skinned folks. Yet on the other, the women are stereotyped as being easy because they were generally considered as children of rapes. Lighter-skinned men were considered effeminate probably because darker-skinned men were considered stronger workhorses!

      • September 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

        Kinna, interestingly / scarily / saddly (all of the above?) when talking about the children Moinette may possibly have in the future she is basically told that mixed race females were seen as good and would be kept (by the white owners) whereas mixed race male children would often simply be killed. Partially for being seen as ‘not hard-working enough’ and partially because they just weren’t accepted anywhere – field or house.

  6. September 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    This discussion is so enlightening for me as the Civil War and antebellum south were not time periods I focused in upon in my history degree.

    It’s easy to see now how vastly slavery has impacted culture even to modern times over 100 years later. I’m humbled at how much I didn’t realize it before.

    Your point on biracial women being considered easy because they were children of rapes….oh wow. I feel like Amy should maybe do a whole post on that, as she can probably speak about it a bit more rationally whereas I just get so steamed up I can’t even type properly!

    Now I wish there was a book on the list about a biracial male slave. It’d be interesting to compare/contrast the experiences.

    • September 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

      Yeah, it’s quite sickening really re: children of rapes being seen as ‘easier’. I certainly don’t know enough about it through history or to the present but I bet there have been some interesting historical studies / scholarly research done on the subject that would be fascinating (in a painful way) to read.

      Also, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow is really highlighting for me the historical legacies that slavery has lent us in the present day – and how scary that is too.

      • September 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm

        Oh my gosh, yes. Reading Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow is really impacting how I understand and view black/white relations in the US.

  1. December 24, 2011 at 9:38 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: