The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Interest Level: Adult
The Good Lord BirdThis fact-based fictionalized telling of the events that led up to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 places a cross-dressing slave boy at the centre as the often hilarious narrator. Henry Shackleford is about 11 years old when his father dies in a shootout with the notorious abolitionist John Brown, who snatches up young Henry (dressed as many boys of the day were in a potato sack) having mistaken him for a girl. Fearing for his life and seeking escape and freedom, Henry goes with the fiction and spends the rest of the novel hiding the truth, and his “walnuts,” as best he can. Brown and his ragtag army call him Onion, and consider him a good-luck charm though hunger, cold, death and carnage chase them as they pursue their goal of freeing all slaves. Confusion over the term “trim” leads Onion to a brothel, where he dodges the intended work and becomes a whiskey-swilling tavern sweeper for a year or so, until Brown’s son discovers him there and takes Little Onion back to Brown, who is now deep into his plans to attack the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry. I thoroughly enjoyed McBride’s inventive approach to this historical event. I knew little in advance about the events and the people involved, and I think it would have helped to have known more. (See this helpful summary.) It is uncomfortable reading for a 21st century reader; McBride uses the vernacular of the day, including words like coloreds, Negroes and even nigger. Through Henry’s honest narrative, McBride creates a complex novel that challenges our modern assumptions. Henry comments that “slavery ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it and growed used to it. Your meals is free. Your roof is paid for. Someone else got to bother themselves about you. It was easier than being on the trail, running from posses and sharing a roasted squirrel with five others…” Shortly afterward he stuns the reader with a graphic description of a hanging as slave owners object, not out of any sense of humanity but for economic reasons: “A colored was a lowly dog during slave time, but he was a valuable dog.” Frederick Douglass, who declined to support Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry, gets a short cameo in the novel as a deeply flawed but magnificent orator. Harriet Tubman also briefly appears, but dodges skewering by the author. McBride treads a fine line between satire and buffoonery and keeps perfect balance, pulling back just as you think he’s about to topple too far. This one is thoroughly entertaining, often riveting, and always provocative.
More discussion and reviews of this novel, which won the 2013 National Book Award: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16171272

 

 

 

 

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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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