“Every moving thing has its own clock.”
The Time of Our Singing is an extraordinary novel that follows the past and present of the Strom family. The story is told by Joseph Strom, one of the sons of David and Delia. David Strom and Delia Daley are from two very different worlds. Delia is black, the daughter of a successful physician father and a musical mother. She is an extremely talented singer who, at the time she meets David, dreams of a professional music career. The novel tells the story of Delia’s family, going back to slavery.
David is a German, Jewish refugee who left Germany in the 30s and spends his life seeking information of the fate of his family. He is a physics professor at Columbia University, focused on the secrets of time. “Our father knew more than any living person about the secret of time, except how to live in it.”
Delia and David meet on Easter, 1939, at the mall in Washington D.C., where Marian Anderson, a black singer, is performing for the public. It is a period in history where blacks and whites did not intermingle let alone engage in a romantic relationship. After the concert, as Delia is trying to walk away from David, they encounter a lost boy and they help him find his family. This experience brings them together.
Delia and David marry and Delia’s family grudgingly accept their new in-law. They have two sons close together, Jonah and Joseph. The two are a year apart in age and Delia refers to them jointly as Jojo. Sister Ruth comes along three years after Joseph.
The children have extraordinary musical talent. Jonah, in particular, has a rare and extraordinary voice. “That voice was so pure, it could make heads of state repent…And if any voice could have sent a message back to warn the past and correct the unmade future, it would have been my brother’s.” Joseph serves as Jonah’s accompaniest throughout much of Jonah’s musical career.
Jonah and Joseph attend a boarding school for music and subsequently go on to Juilliard. Their musical careers take off and after Jonah wins the America’s Next Voice competition, they begin traveling around the country giving concerts. Ultimately Jonah goes on and travels successfully through Europe.
While Jonah and Joseph are touring, the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. The story moves back and forth between their travels and concerts and the violence occurring throughout the country. “In February of 1965, three black men gunned down Malcolm X…We performed the night of his murder in Rochester, New York. While thousands marched from Selma to Montgomery, we were driving from East Lansing to Dayton. The night Rochester exploded, we sang in St. Louis. When Jacksonville burned, we played Baltimore.”
Delia and David decide that their children are beyond race and they make a conscious decision not to address racial identity. This, and David’s work on America’s nuclear weapons, causes a schism with Delia’s family that never heals. As sister Ruth grows up, she becomes active in the civil rights movement and rejects her family outright. As Jonah and Joseph grow older, each struggles with his racial identity in his own way. The book addresses racial struggles throughout the civil rights movement, the challenges David and Delia experience in their marriage, the struggles Delia’s family feel in accepting the marriage, David’s lifetime pursuit of his missing family members and obsession with time and Joseph, Ruth and Jonah’s internal and differing conflicts about their own identities. “The bird and the fish can fall in love. But where they gonna build their nest?”
Throughout the book there is love, hate and everything in between, but always there is music, physics and time. Every thought, every motion and every event has a rhythm. The book is a brilliant beating circle of time, beginning and ending at the same point. The story is gripping, the racial, musical, historical and scientific themes are compelling and the writing is beautiful. I lost myself in this book and have had trouble surfacing. But be warned: this book is a commitment. It is long (640 pages), dense and all consuming.