The Time of Our Singing
By Richard Powers
Grade Levels: 9-12 and Parents
Richard Powers is best described as a “polymath.” In addition to literature, he has been a student of physics, programming, and an avid musician. It’s the interplay of these diverse passions in his novels that make them come alive as truly unique experiences. Ever since his first novel and first commercial success, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was published in 1985, he has captivated audiences with an insightful and fresh take on the animating ideas of our time - even if sometimes he neglects a fuller character development or details to do so.
His 2003 novel The Time of Our Singing has a similar, and all-too-relevant theme. The novel is a multigenerational narrative that combines a love of music and a meaningful look at race and racism in America. Written 10 years before the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, it draws as its inspiration the long and nuanced story of liberation movements in the United States, from World War II, through the Civil Right Movement, to the modern day. It is a testament to the novel and an indictment of how little progress we have made since then that the story is still stingingly relevant.
The book follows the story of David Strom and Delia Daley and the unlikely marriage between the two: a German-Jewish scientist and a black musician growing up in Philadelphia. Beyond exploring the prejudice they experience, the novel spends much of its attention on the family dynamic that develops between the two and their three children. The sincere and loving relationships between family members are contrasted to a society in which their children feel they will never really belong. It is made plain to them that they do not fully belong to either white or black society in 1940s New York City.
The narrative itself isn’t linear - it skips and moves around over several decades, allowing the reader to slowly fill in context over the course of the book. By the end, you will have a fuller understanding of who these people are and how their history, and America’s history, has shaped them, for better and worse.