Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams is the sprawling of tale of Little Bird, or Maryam, a girl taken from her home in West Africa in the 18th century and transported to the Americas where she is forced to carve a new life path. The book is loosely inspired by the author’s discovery of a 112-year-old woman in an 1870 U.S. Federal census in Ohio (which reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon,) as well as on the author’s real-life female ancestors.
The book begins with Maryam as an old woman–112 by her count, though there are no records. In the brief time we see West Africa, Sheila Williams gives life to the bustling cities Maryam visits with her father, like Ouidah in present day Benin, as well as the myriad cultures of the tribes like the Dahomey. This cultural foundation is important not only in Maryam maintaining her identity from the “before time,” but also as a way to connect with other African-born enslaved people in the Americas as well as keeping cultures alive. From a young age, Maryam learns languages from several different tribes, as well as some Portuguese. During her brutal journey on the Middle Passage, she picks up more words. In time, her skill for languages catches the eye of a pirate and she is taken under his wing in a brief stint out of bondage.
From West Africa, to the Caribbean, to George, Virginia, and finally Ohio–Maryam experiences a life’s journey akin to Homer’s Odyssey. In each place she is taken, Maryam learns more languages and picks up healing and midwifery skills. Again and again she is forced to start anew and carve out another impossible life she never thought she’d ever have to do again. She experiences immense loss of family, friends, and parts of herself.
Told from the first person perspective, Sheila Williams’ excels in giving Maryam a very specific tone and voice. Larger events in the Americas are mostly glossed over, I think, to show how insular and alienating Maryam’s life becomes each time she is forced to start again. In other words, the world-changing news and events of the day do not trump the trials and tribulations she experiences of a daily basis. In all the darkness, Maryam is able to find fleeting moments of happiness and the author gives us a bittersweet, yet satisfying ending.