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Richard Powers’ novels are known and respected for the way he incorporates lessons in history and science in the body of his work without intruding on character or plot development. In The Time of Our Singing, he structures his novel around the history of the modern civil rights movement in the U.S., beginning with Marion Anderson’s 1939 concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within this structure, among other subjects, he includes a deep appreciation of classical music and the physics of time. His portrayal of racism in America received the following endorsement from Freeden Blume Oeur, a scholar of African American politics and intellectual history at Tufts University: “I saw in The Time of Our Singing how science and music can be allies in racial struggle. We should listen to the truths they reveal.”
However, of the novel’s many riches, the one highlighted here is related not to larger historical or philosophical themes but to individual experience, which transcends cultural categories:  understanding the complexity inherent in offering words of comfort after a horrible loss. As should be expected, a novel tracing anti-Black racism through the civil rights movement is full of heartbreaking tragedy. Not the least of these is the death of the mother, Dolores, in a family (which had its beginnings at the Anderson concert) of a husband and three children. Her death reverberates throughout the lives of the characters and interacts with the effects of racism for the rest of the novel.
To frame the passage quoted below: The youngest child, Ruthie, is the first on the scene where Dolores is the only casualty of an explosion which has destroyed their apartment building. As the surviving members of the family return, the middle child and narrator of the story, Joseph, describes how differently the father’s words intending comfort could be heard by different people, especially when they are children.

The fire didn’t kill her, Da said.
“She would have lost awareness a long time before. You must remember the rate of rapid oxidation for so large a blaze.” The fire would have sucked all the air form our house long before the flames touched her. “And then there was the explosion.” The furnace, that time bomb.  “She would have been knocked unconscious.” That was why she never got out. The middle of the day, Mama quick and healthy, and no one else killed.

She couldn’t have felt a thing. That’s what Da meant, trying to comfort us. The fire didn’t burn her. It did turn her to char, nothing but ash, bone. And the wedding ring. Da’s consolation was infinitely feebler. The fire didn’t kill her.  She was dead already, by the time she burned.

Still, he reminded us whenever he thought we needed it. The fire didn’t kill her. Jonah heard: Dead before the firemen even got there. I heard: Death by suffocation, her lungs getting nothing, just as bad as flames. Ruthie heard: Still alive. (p. 165) 


Powers, R. (2003). The Time of Our Singing. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Oeur, F. B. (2019, June 25). Recommended Summer Books. [Review of the book The Time of Our Singing, by R. Powers]. Tufts Now.