Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen tells the story of Thomas Greene Wiggins, a musical genius who performed as Blind Tom throughout the 19th century. As an African American, Tom’s life is anything but simple despite the Emancipation (which we learn isn’t all it’s cracked up to be at first glance). The cast of characters throughout the whole book weave a complex story about the racial injustices and hardships of the time that even artists like Tom are not immune to and perhaps are even more vulnerable to because of his talent.

The novel spans several years and places, from Georgia to New York and beyond. We learn about Tom’s mother, the Bethune family who owned them as slaves, and Tom’s various performances. The writing was dense and it often took me twice as long to read a page (and understand it) than normal. If you take the time to grasp Allen’s writing though, you will be rewarded. There are overarching messages in this book that are particularly poignant today as we continue to explore and uncover race-based issues that are deeply rooted in our country’s history.

As a fan of historical fiction, I would recommend this book for history buffs and people ready to sink their teeth into a substantial novel. While this book was quite a departure from some of my historical fiction favorites (those focused on early-20th century figures), I am still glad I read it and took the time to understand more about a different time in our country’s past – one that still holds many lessons for us today.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Stats: 608 pages
Recommended for: Those interested in the Civil War era and aspects of that history we don’t normally have much insight into.
Up next: The Love Artist by Jane Alison

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