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  • Written by John Wray
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  • Written by John Wray
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Written by John WrayAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Wray


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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42515-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Set in the American South in the years before and during the Civil War, John Wray’s hypnotic new novel is at once a crime story, a bravura work of historical fiction, and a fire-and-brimstone meditation on American credulity and corruption.
Thaddeus Morelle’s followers call him “the Redeemer.” Over the years he has led the Island 37 Gang from stealing horses to stealing slaves in an enterprise so nefarious that both the Union and Confederacy have placed a bounty on their heads. But now Morelle is dead, murdered by his puppet and prot?g?, Virgil Ball, who may rid himself of the Redeemer but can never be free of his Trade. Based on the true story of John Murrell, a figure once as infamous as Jesse James, Canaan’s Tongue is suspenseful and fiercely comic, a modern masterpiece of the American grotesque.



It began at a respectable camp-meeting, Virgil says.

I first laid eyes on the Redeemer in May of ’51, just upriver from Natchez. I was passing the head of Lafitte's Chute in a pine-sap canoe I'd paid for honestly in Vicksburg when the immaculate white of a revival tent caught my notice, fluttering bravely at a spot that had been wilderness only a fortnight before. I banked my canoe in the shade and climbed up the muddy, stump-littered slope, aiming to satisfy my curiosity at the tent-flap. A water-stained bill stuck to the canvas by what looked to be a lady's hatpin caught my eye–:

"The Same Came For A Witness;
To Bear Witness Of The Light"

On the far side of the tent, past a cluster of traps and wagons, thirty-odd horses stood tethered in a row. There were a few skiffs and bucket-boats farther up the bank, but not many. Most of the congregation looked to have come on foot. Up close, the canvas was frayed and weathered–: peering in through a thumb-sized gash, I saw the tent was amply filled with lambs. I hung back a moment, overcome by a fit of bashfulness (I was a rather timid vagrant in those days) and looked straight above me at the sky. It was sapphire blue, I remember, and wonderfully calm. A warbling rose up now and then inside the tent, punctuating the reedy exhortations of the preacher. Even through the heavy cloth his voice had something queer about it, something out of place, as though a chimpanzee were lecturing a learned assembly. My prudence did battle with my curiosity, fired a brave volley, and collapsed in a heap of dust. I parted the tent-flap and slipped inside.

In doing so I sentenced my Christian self to death, though at the time I felt nothing but astonishment. Through a breach in the crowd I saw the preacher on his crate pulpit, gasping and spitting and proselytizing and weeping–: a delicate, sallow-faced, limp-haired dwarf, in a suit that looked cut out of butcher's paper. I mumbled an oath and passed a hand over my eyes. Was this some manner of vaudeville? Had I mistaken a curiosity-show for a bonafide camp meeting? I stood stock-still for a spell, my right hand clutching at the tentflap, my left hand in front of me, as if in expectation of a fall. Then I found a place for myself at the back of the airless, man-smelling tent and listened.

The preacher wore a bicornered hat of brushed black silk, the kind Napoleon favored at Waterloo. His left fore-finger rested lightly on a bible, and he was declaiming in a tremulous voice, a voice riddled with earthly suffering–:

Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are clean of heart. But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

He paused the briefest of instants and raised his rum-colored eyeballs to survey us. I'd been to revivals before, and was used to their choked-back burlesqueries–; delighted in them, in fact. This was altogether different. The few women in the crowd clutched at their bosoms and wept in silent misery–; the men stood together in a clot, staring at the preacher with a look of unleavened murder. They did their best to drive the notion from their minds, of course, as the killing of a preacher is no small matter in the eyes of God and society. But the urge was there, and unquiet–: you could read it in their faces. And it was this very same urge held them in his power.

For there are no bands in their Death, the preacher continued, lingering affectionately over his t's and s's in an unmistakable shanty-town lisp. I smiled a little to myself–: this sport of nature had come–of all places!–from the nigger-townships down along the delta. But he was all the more marvellous for it.

They are not in trouble as other men: neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compaseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment…

He leaned slowly forward, the trace of a frown on his damp, rat-like face, and glanced up from the book as though he'd just recollected us. “This puts me in mind of an episode from my own life,” he said in a wistful voice. Planting a finger on the little book, as if to keep it from escaping, he began–:

“I was raised on an acre of black peat in Virginia, youngest boy to a simple, scripture-loving planter of plug tobacco. There were thirteen of us all told, minnowed into two eight-by-seven-foot rooms. But we lived modestly, and praised God nightly in our prayers.” The crate creaked angrily beneath his feet. “Up the lane lived a great patriarch, Yeoman Dorne, with his wife and seven sons. The youngest of them, Ezekiel, was my equal in years.”

His eyes grew melancholy and fixed. “Lord knows, our lot was not a disburthened one,” he said.

Sundry matrons let out anticipatory sighs.

“Hejekuma Morelle, my grandfather,” said the preacher, “was, to put not too fine a point on it, stricken with the pox.” (assorted gasps and mutterings.) “Contrary-wise, Yeoman Dorne–a Bostoner–was a wide-breasted squire of sixty-five, arresting in person and boisterous in manner. The cries and frequent imprecations to our Lord by my grandfather, who raved and cursed us in his misery, took their toll not only on my grandmother, Odette – who developed in consequence a nervous palsy – but also on my mother, Anne-Marie, who grew progressively weaker from lack of sleep, and presented an easy mark to the cholera which swept through the country in the winter of Twenty-nine.” (Brighter, more plaintive whimperings from the choir.) “Morelia Dorne, wife of our neighbor, whose boots we buffed, whose wheat we threshed, never suffered the least complaint of health and bore seven healthy, plum-cheeked boys.”

The preacher regarded the assembly dolefully. Not a word was spoken during that very lengthy pause. The breeze rustled the canvas and moved the tent-poles from side to side, giving the illusion of a ship at sea, or at least of a barge in a heavy current. Finally he cleared his throat.

“The premature end of my sweet mother sent my father, who'd never been entirely right in the head, into antics of filth and violence undreamt-of by Christian man. My eldest brother, Thaddeus Everett–whose left side was withered from birth–made the error of reprimanding my father one evening for his profligacy, calling on saints Peter and Albert as his witnesses. My father brained him with a cast-iron chimney pan.” The preacher paused again. “The sight of that drove my sister, Sophia, clean out of her wits, and troubled all of our sleep for six months thereafter. My grandfather's blubberings, needless to say, continued without abatement.”

The preacher had not so much as blinked since the commencement of his narrative. His face was placid as a saint’s. Ignoring the mounting disbelief of the crowd, he continued–: “The eldest Dorne boy, Patríce, excelled at hunting, fishing and the steeple-chase, in which last he took particular pleasure on account of the Libyan thorough-bred with which his father had lately furnished him. Contrary-wise, my second sister Margaret, a bed-ridden cripple, witnessed the unrelenting recession of our family's fortunes stoically from her pallet by the coke-stove. My younger brother, Thaddeus Benjamin, had the skin slowly peeled from his body for the sole offence of stuttering at the supper-table–; Ezekiel, my counterpart in the Dorne household, was never, to my knowledge, so much as shat on by a pigeon. My third sister, Isabel, was set upon, while still quite young, by a hungry sow and horribly disfigured. Each of the Dorne boys, contrary-wise, received a trained jacarundi at their confirmation, with a pearl-and-moleskin collar on which the Declaration of Independence, in its entirety, had been embroidered in platinum thread. Esperanza, our youngest, was seized by my grandfather in a fit of syphilitic delirium, taken hold of by the ears, and repeatedly, mercilessly–“

At this instant the preacher's litany was cut short by the sobs of a woman to the left of the pulpit.

With a wink to the assembled crowd, he turned to her.

“You there,” he said. “You, little mother! Would you venture to affirm that you know your scripture?”

I could just make out the back of the woman's head, if I stood on tip-toe. It shook a little, but she answered confidently enough–:

“I believe I do, preacher.”

“We'll see what you believe,” the preacher said. His voice was low and reverent. Holding his right hand aloft, he intoned–:

Their eyes stand out with fatness: They have more than heart could wish.

“Who is being discussed here?” he asked, looking not at the woman but over her black-bonnetted head at the rest of us. A light was beginning to kindle in his eyes.

“The wicked,” the woman answered promptly.

“The wicked,” the preacher repeated for our benefit. He coughed once into his sleeve. “Recognize them, do you, from that description?”

“I haven't–beg pardon, I recognize their manner from it,” the woman said. “I'd know them by their ways, sir, yes.”

“Your familiarity, sister, with the ways and manners of the wicked is duly noted,” the preacher said. A ripple of laughter ran through the tent. “Pray continue your declamation for us.”

The woman said nothing, shaking her head more resolutely now.

“No?” said the preacher, frowning. “Nothing? Shall we give you more? Good–; we'll give you more.” He ran his finger slowly, almost coquettishly, down the page.

They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: They speak loftily.

He paused again. The tent was as silent, in that moment, as a genuine church might have been. The woman was one of a small, severely clothed handful at the very front who looked to be the only persons there to have opened the Holy Book–; the others, by the look of them, were in the habit of passing their sabbath-days in decidedly looser collars. The preacher smiled at us and shifted his balance on the crate.

“I don't follow, sir,” the woman said, looking to either side of her in perplexity. “I don't see that I warrant–“

They set their mouths against the Heavens,” the preacher hissed, glaring down at her as though the Antichrist were hidden in her bonnet–: “They set their mouths against the heavens, and-their-tongue-walketh-through-the-earth. There! What is the lesson in that, little mother-in-Jesus?” He stepped–or rather teetered–back from the edge of the crate as he spoke, holding the small glossy book above him like a tomahawk. I saw now that it was a cheap brush-peddler's copy, the sort passed out at every river-landing. “Their tongue WALKETH through the earth,” he sang out, slapping the binding smartly with his palm. “Psalm Seventy-three, One nine!”

The woman made no attempt at a reply. The bonnet hid her face from us, but it was plain that she was weeping. The preacher looked down at her contentedly. He was a puzzle to us all, and an entertainment–; but he was more than that. He was a revelation.

“Their tongue walketh through the earth,” he said once more, almost too quietly to hear.

Just then a scuffling began outside the tent. No-one else seemed to take note of it, though the sound was irregular and close. Perhaps the preacher did, however, as he suddenly stood bolt upright and sucked in a solemn breath. In spite of his exceeding smallness–or perhaps because of it–this act had a tragic nobility that was irresistible. It seemed as if he were about to embark, with gentility and grace, upon a long and sweetly rendered discourse on human suffering.
Instead he hurled himself down at the stricken woman, buffeting the air with the little book, his thin voice sharpening to a shriek–:

“It’s ME, of course, little mother-in-Jesus! Me! Can’t you find me in that scrap of doggerel? Can’t you make out my silhouette? Do my eyes not stand out with fatness? Does pride not compass me about? Have I not set my mouth against the Heavens? Answer! Have I not spoken loftily?”

He tossed the book aside and caught the woman about the waist, pulling a pocket-mirror from his coat and bringing it within a hair's-breadth of her face–:

“The lesson, little mother, is not to go rooting about for sweet-meats when your bowels were meant for oats.”

The woman’s body slumped forward slightly, as though the wind had gone out of it. She put up no resistance. The preacher’s next words came out very like a hymn–:

Look upon your cud-chewing nature, blessed of Jahweh, and be content.

The image of him in that instant is graven onto my memory like acid onto copper plate. He stood stock-still before the woman, one arm hidden among the starched pleats of her dress, the other holding the mirror aloft that the entire tent might peer into it. He was a good deal smaller than his victim and there was something about him of the supplicant and the schoolboy even as he stared up into her eyes, his face a patch-work of malice, exhultation and Heaven knows what species of desire. The rest of the women buried their faces in their shawls–; the men howled at the pulpit like heifers at a branding.

No-one had made a move as yet, however. All stood looking on abjectly, stiffly, breaking away in a great show of disgust only to look back at once, helpless as babes in their curiosity. Some of the men had begun, without being aware of it themselves, to leer. The sermon had done its work–: in the space of five minutes the assembly under the tent–which at first had borne at least a skin-deep resemblance to a gathering of the faithful–had been exposed as a carnival of mawkishness and lust. A dream-like stillness overcame me, the stillness of astonishment, weighing down my awareness and my limbs–; I turned back sleepily to face the pulpit. The preacher was now clutching the woman's head by its tight, revivalist bun and fumbling with the fly-button of his britches.

In the blink of an eye the crowd swung shut on them like a gate. I fought my way forward with all my strength–; just as I reached the pulpit, however, shouts rang out behind me and the gate swung open as inexorably as it had closed. The preacher and his catechist had vanished. A tide of bewildered faces swept me out onto the grass–: it was the better part of a minute before I was able to get my bearings. When at last I did, I couldn't suppress a laugh–: along the edge of the tent lay a row of cast-off saddles, ranged neatly side-by-side in the weeds. Of the thirty-odd horses there was not a trace.

Neither, when I made my way back inside, was there any sign of the ‘Redeemer’. A throng of bloodless-looking men stood packed together at the pulpit, cursing and whispering to one another–; it was impossible to guess whether he'd escaped or been bustled off to the nearest fork-limbed tree. A deep and righteous violence prevailed. A number of suspicious looks were directed toward me, on account of my ragged river-clothes–: I came to my senses, turned my back on the lot of them and slunk quietly back to my skiff. Only when I was well out on the water did I notice the thick, oily throbbing of my brain, as though I’d spent the last hour drinking mash.

From the Hardcover edition.
John Wray|Author Q&A

About John Wray

John Wray - Canaan's Tongue

Photo © Cheryl Lynn Huber

John Wray was born in Washington, D.C., and has since lived in Texas, Alaska, Chile, and New York. His first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times’s Best Book of the Year. Wray is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

Q: What made you decide to write a novel about the stolen slave trade in the South on the eve of the Civil War, especially since you grew up in the northeast and your first novel was about Austria?

A: My mother is Austrian and my father is American, so I’ve had the privilege (sometimes a dubious one) of discovering that relatives of mine played roles, both commendable and shameful, in some of the most momentous events in both countries. One of the amazing things about looking into your family’s past is the discovery that your grandparents or great-grandparents were intimately involved in the most dramatic events of world history—that, for them, legendary events like D-Day or the Battle of Gettysburg were actual lived experiences.

My first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, is a reckoning of sorts with the legacy of my mother’s Austrian family, from the specter of the Third Reich to the great disappointment of Socialism. Canaan's Tongue, on the other hand, is a coming to terms with my father’s family and with my American heritage–relatives of ours were both slaveholders and abolitionists, as well as soldiers on both sides in the Civil War. The Union general in charge of the Western Theater, William Starke Rosecrans, is a direct ancestor on my father’s side. So I’ve wanted to write a book about slavery and the Civil War for quite some time.

Q: You base your most dastardly character “The Redeemer” on the real life criminal, John Murel—as notorious in his day as Jesse James (yet not nearly as well known as James today). What was so despicable about him and how does your character differ from him?

A: America has had its share of larger-than-life criminals, but John Murel is certainly a contender for the most spectacular and heinous. He made a name for himself in the mid 1850’s as a horse-thief, but he found the profit-margin to be too small. His solution was simple: switch to a more valuable commodity. He hit on the idea of hiring mulatto agents to pose as Underground Railroad operatives, and enticing slaves in the deep South, where the mortality rate was highest, to run away. Once they had done so, the runaways were told that it was necessary to sell them one more time, to raise funds for their passage north. It was agreed that they’d run away from their new masters after two or three months, and meet Murel’s agents at some tucked-away place on the river, to continue their run. Instead of being brought to freedom, however, the slaves–or contrabands, as they were called–would either be returned to their original masters, and a bounty collected on them, or else they’d be murdered outright, and their bodies would vanish without a trace into the Mississsippi.

Being a novelist, I’ve altered Murel’s story to suit the needs of my narrative. The details of his business are taken straight from 19th-century accounts, but the character of ‘Thaddeus Morelle’ in Canaan’s Tongue is altogether my own invention (which creeps me out a little, I have to admit!).

Q: Is it true that this “organized crime” of slave trading became so large at the time that there were actual well-to-do shareholders in the community? And can you explain a little how that system worked?

A: Incredible as it seems, Murel’s system worked like clockwork. It would be tempting to view his gang as a somewhat grotesque by-product of antebellum society, an unpleasant footnote to a romantic, bygone era, if his scheme hadn’t been so astonishingly successful. Within a few years of its inception, the operation had grown so profitable, and so pervasive, that when it was finally exposed and the list of its shareholders published, it contained so many respected names (from both the South and the North) that the report was dismissed out of hand.

Q: Was your initial interest in this subject the setting/time period, or was it in order to tell a certain kind of story?

A: One of the things that attracted me right away was the role of Murel’s Gang as one of the early American mega-corporations: in its heyday it had over a thousand employees and shareholders in virtually every state. Parallels were just waiting–I’d almost say, demanding–to be drawn to contemporary America. Today’s corporations have never possessed more direct and open political influence, or fewer scruples about exploiting that influence to the fullest possible degree. Murel would have thrived in the U.S. of today.

Q: The book is narrated from a few different characters’ points of view, though mostly through the appropriately named Virgil. The language they use is sometimes colorful and profane, sometimes 19th-century formal. How were you able to capture those voices/that vernacular?

A: I read so many Victorian novels as a kid—borrowed from my mother, who was addicted to them—that a certain type of 19th-century rhetoric comes (almost) naturally to me. And of course Mark Twain helped; Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn were my guiding lights for Canaan’s Tongue. I would say they were my bible, but the Bible itself was crucial as well. Murel used the Bible cunningly. He used religion—or the rhetoric of religion—to manipulate the slaves he traded in, the politicians he corrupted, and even his partners-in-crime. He also, in his early years, liked to impersonate a preacher along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, delivering soul-searing sermons while his colleagues relieved the faithful of their horses and their pocketbooks.

Q: Necessarily in your depiction of how this band of criminals treats the slaves and each other, there are moments of great violence and brutality. Was that hard to write?

A: I’ve never found violent scenes hard to write; they have an innate excitement to them. It’s the aftermath of writing violence that’s hard. A certain amount of self-distrust sets in after you’ve written something genuinely disturbing. You find yourself questioning your own motives for writing the scene, and attempting to justify the material as essential to the story. Believe it or not, an earlier version of Canaan’s Tongue was much more graphic. Later, I found it more effective, in many places, to suggest the brutality of Murel’s gang, as well as the society it sprang from, rather than to show it in every last blood-curdling detail.

Q: How did you go about doing your research for this book? Aside from Mark Twain’s mention in Life on the Mississippi, was there much source material on Murel or the actual events of the day?

A: There was surprisingly little source material, considering that Murel was as infamous in his day as John Dillinger or Al Capone. What information I did find was often wildly contradictory, as tends to be the case with popular accounts, and with 19th-century history in general. This is a frustrating situation for historians and journalists, of course, but actually very liberating for the novelist. I’ve found that the best way to approach a historical subject is to do my homework thoroughly, so that I eventually reach the point at which I feel comfortable filling in the blanks with imagined events and characters. Once that happens, the fiction can begin to take over.

Q: Even though the novel is about the South in the 1850s/60s, there seems to be a distinct lack of the nostalgia for the Old South and the Lost Cause often seen in Southern fiction. Did you spend much time “on location” in Mississippi either before or while writing the book?

A: When I lived in Texas I was involved with a woman from central Louisiana. We spent a lot of time in the Lousiana lowcountry and along the river. I drew on those memories to some degree (which might explain the lack of nostalgia!) and also made a number of trips through Tennessee and Mississippi, visiting plantations and islands and cane-brakes like those used both by the Underground Railroad and Murel’s corporation (which was, in a sense, the Railroad’s mirror-image). But beautiful as much of that country is, my aim in writing Canaan’s Tongue was not to romanticize the Old South; in fact, it would have been impossible to do so. The subject matter of the novel would not have allowed it.

Q: Where does the title “Canaan’s Tongue” come from and what is its significance in this story?

A: “Canaan’s tongue” is a biblical term, used by evangelical Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries (and into the 20th) to mean the language of the elect, the language spoken by those lucky few who have been born again. In the novel, however, the term takes on a number of other meanings, and gradually becomes entwined with the underlying mystery of the narrative. Murel and others in his gang use the metaphor of being ‘born again’ to mean those who have been allowed into the Gang’s inner circle and entrusted with the protection of its secrets. And Canaan’s tongue, being the language spoken in Heaven, also comes to mean the language of the dead. Those who inquire about its meaning rarely live long enough to profit by their knowledge.

Q: For your book tour, you are planning, a la Huckleberry Finn, to raft down the Mississippi. What are you looking forward to most about it? Have you ever done anything like this before?

A: I’m looking forward to just about everything about it. I’ve never done anything like this before, but it was common enough in the 19th century, and the river has become a much safer place since then, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers. A friend and I are building the raft right now, out of Home Depot surplus. The trip will retrace, as closely as possible, a route that Murel’s smugglers are believed to have used, and of course it will also be a tribute to Mark Twain, my fairy godfather for the last five years. But really it just seemed a great deal more fun than a conventional book tour, and I’m looking forward tremendously to revisiting the many places that figure in Canaan’s Tongue and that I had such a great time discovering when the book was in its planning stages–like Natchez, Mississippi, or the 37th Island upriver from New Orleans, where Murel’s Gang had their hideout. Not to mention hush puppies, blackened catfish, gumbo and beignets!

Q: Assuming you survive this trip, have you started to think about what you’ll write next?

A: I’m staying closer to home for the next one. It’s going to be a short, quiet thriller, set in New York and Brooklyn, about a schizophrenic teenager on a quest to save the world.

From the Hardcover edition.



"There is wild, wicked music throughout these pages." –Sam Lipsyte, New York Times Book Review“Richly atmospheric. . . . To read Canaan’s Tongue is to be wholly enveloped in its dark world.” –The Times-Picayune“This novel is an achievement, easily one of the best by a young American to appear this year.” –The New York Sun“Filled with vain, gorgeous language, mystical illustrations and merciless schemes. . . . It is as if Mark Twain wrote an episode of Deadwood set on the Mississippi.” –The New York Times"Irresistible, equal parts Faulkner, Morrison and Poe. . . . Wray's magnetic hold on our imagination never flags." –Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World"Wray is the real thing, and Canaan's Tongue is itself a masterpiece. . . . Somewhat resembles–and arguably surpasses in richness and color–Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian."–Kirkus (starred review)"Wray is tapping into essential aspects of American history and culture. . . . Canaan's Tongue reveals boldly and mythically, as few other novels have done, the hallucinatory conjunction of conquest, religious fervor, patriotic gore and the relentless striving for profit that have characterized America from its beginnings to the first decade of the 21st Century." –Frederic Koeppel, Memphis Commercial Appeal"Pure Southern gothic . . . Reads like dark poetry" –Dallas Morning News"John Wray's novel is an achievement, easily one of the best by a young American to appear this year." –New York Sun"The dark side of American history has always been best treated by the novel, and Wray does justice to some incredibly rich and challenging material, forging a style that is as loose and wild as its subjects."–Publishers Weekly (starred review)"An ambitious and strongly allegorical tale about the ability of belief to structure reality."–Library Journal"A powerfully dark story that incorporates Southern culture and the wisdom of the kabbalah with just a touch of the occult."–Booklist

  • Canaan's Tongue by John Wray
  • August 08, 2006
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400033812

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