I sometimes have qualms about reading a new book from an author who has really impressed me with an earlier work. So it was with James McBride who wrote one of my all time favorites, SONG YET SUNG, a novel that resonates deep within me to this day. When I saw his new book, THE GOOD LORD BIRD, being offered on Amazon Vine for review, my anxiety returned because I've been disappointed so many times by authors who have failed to live up to their earlier promise.
I'm happy to say that Mr. McBride presents a book that reaffirms his mastery of historical fiction. BIRD is the story of a young black boy, Henry Shackleford, snatched up by abolitionist John Brown and taken away from his family after the youngster's father is killed in a scuffle. Mistaken for a girl by the crusty old man, Henrietta became his name, although Little Onion was Brown's pet name for him. What follows is Onion's account of Brown's rabid attempt to free all the slaves and Onion's adventures disguised as a girl..
John Brown was a fanatical lunatic beset with God's direction. No one could sway him from his mission, control his madness, or change the way he went through life as an unkempt and disagreeable person. Onion was the exception and, although hunger, cold, and violence plagued the boy through most of his time with Brown, he remained loyal and closely bound to the demented old man for years.
McBride has amazing ability to flesh out his characters through dialogue and verbal depictions. This entire book is written in the dialect of the 1850s, using colloquialisms and expressions of the period and place. It's a joy to read because of the endless asides that either amuse or anger the protagonists, depending on their frame of mind. The language flows easily through the book, transporting the reader to a time where intellect flowed from the land and undercurrent of poverty that existed.
Dusty beards, smelly clothes, and threadbare boots were the byproducts of the time. Frigid cabins, miserable conditions, and wet travel through the wilderness were more common than comfortable surroundings. McBride immerses the reader in these environs through impeccable writing, neither belaboring nor offending the reader.
John Brown's mission to free the slaves is the plot. McBride introduces us to historic figures that played important roles in Brown's life. We meet Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in detailed studies. We experience the slaves' discomfort and uncertainty with their lives and their struggle to gain respectability. We hear the hateful and discordant voices of pro-slavery advocates mixed with the clarion calls for freedom by the abolitionists. We feel the violence of their struggles as they assert their rabid points of view. McBride does that for us with his remarkable insight and skill with words.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. You must read it, as well as McBride's other works.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
That McBride was able to keep his characterization and stylistic integrity focused through over four hundred pages of first-person narrative in a linguistic mode authentic for a slave child in pre-Civil War times testifies to this literary masterpiece. Because of that linguistic authenticity, though, some readers might find this story difficult to deal with. I would caution that those who are likely to be distressed by repeated use of terminology that modern usage has come to consider vulgar, crude and racist would need to shelve their squeamishness in order to fully enjoy the extraordinary power and fascination of this narrative.
On the other hand, those who are willing to accept the validity of McBride's setting will find the descriptions of John Brown's character and the "inspired irrationality" of his abolitionist crusade full of nuance and depth. The narrator character, the boy (cast by Brown as a girl) Henry (Henrietta) Shackleford - called Onion - speaks with complete authenticity and amazing insight. The various sons (and one daughter) of John Brown who appear in the story are portrayed with extraordinary intensity given the relatively minor parts they play. The Negro characters, both slave and free, are represented with similarly sharp delineation; in the case of Frederick Douglass, with more than slightly unflattering perspective.
The plot is complex, and at times I felt that the time-line got somewhat confused. For those like me who are not fully conversant with the history of John Brown's exploits, I think at least a brief recap of dates, perhaps at the beginning of each part or at least as a summary at the end, might have lessened that confusion somewhat. However, I did not let this really distract me from my own intense involvement with and enjoyment of the story. Though it was not really "fast moving" in all parts, there was plenty of action and suspense. McBride has definitely produced a masterpiece, I believe.
on May 26, 2014
The author's apparent intention is to provide readers with a fictional, fleshed-out version of the John Brown which we encountered in high school history classes. Unfortunately, the picture created by Mr. McBride is of a superhero-ish stick figure rather than a believable human being. Mr. Brown is portrayed as a callous killer who believes he is doing the Lord's work; his bullets never miss, and the bullets of his numerous enemies can't hit him; he needs little or no food or sleep, is repeatedly described as debilitated, but is almost supernaturally strong and quick. As he wanders the pre-Civil War landscape he encounters a number of historical figures (including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas) who also are presented by Mr. McBride as one-dimensional (Tubman as mythic, Douglas as buffoon), Even the bit players tend to be cartoons, vested with extreme characteristics - exceptionally large and dumb; exceptionally small and wise. I didn't care for the book, and it's only saving grace is that it increased my interest in the time and place of the events portrayed.
on March 22, 2014
I was disappointed that this book was so slow to take off. Given the marvelous reviews, I expected to get wrapped up in the story but after 88 pages, I was still having difficulty staying focused. I wanted to like it. I didn't altogether love the main character, Onion, and perhaps that is because she/he was a flawed individual, as most of us are. However, I did manage to finish the story and learn quite a bit about John Brown. Yes, the story was funny at times but overall, it was tough to read. While I acknowledge the clever use of folksy dialogue to illustrate the narrator, Onion, it created a tedious tale. I was a bit surprised at the negative portrayal of Douglass, and wondered why McBride felt the need to go there with such a revered figure in history. I'm glad to have finished the book but can't honestly say that I would recommend it to anyone else.
James McBride is an extremely gifted author who writes unforgettable books. "The Good Lord Bird" now joins "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," as one of my favorite books.
"The Good Lord Bird" is a fictional accounting of John Brown's zealotry and abolitionist activities, as seen through the eyes of a diminutive young man whom Brown "abducts" following a brawl. Henry (Henrietta) Shackleford, "Little Onion" or "Onion" has a unique perspective on the people and events of the era. Mistaken for a girl, he has the opportunity to see things and to hear information that others would not reveal to a young man. In several instances, humorous scenes flow directly from the gender-identification error or from the mistake's discovery. Further, his treatment as a girl mirrors the treatment he might have received as a slave - it is as if he was not present when events happen or issues discussed. He is merely a piece of "property" and is there, but not aware. Onion recognizes this as he states "...I'd gotten used to living a lie - being a girl - ... being a Negro's a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside ...You are just a Negro to the world ..." However, this gender misidentification also results in Onion being put into some dangerous situations. But, he is a survivor; Onion will do whatever is necessary, including continuing the charade, to avoid bloodshed and to live.
Narrated in the first person, the use of regional vernacular and syntax, as well as grammatical idiosyncrasies adds to the authenticity of "The Good Lord Bird". Characters speak as they might when interacting with others of their social class and level of education. Used as necessary and in the context of story, period vulgarities, racial epithets, and violence only heighten the personal nature of Onion's narrative. Onion's observation of and insight into other characters, their motives, and their true nature is extraordinary.
Throughout "The Good Lord Bird", James McBride maintains the reader's interest and allows the characters to develop realistically. While often irrational and authoritarian, John Brown is, in "The Good Lord Bird", imbued with a humanity he may not deserve. Brown displays a depth of emotion and care for Onion not often accorded him. As a result, Onion maintains a loyalty to Brown through the years. Brown's sons - particularly Frederick -while playing minor roles in this novel, do provide some humorous moments as they interact with Onion.
Set in the years immediately preceding the War Between the States, "The Good Lord Bird" is a fine piece of historical fiction. While my knowledge of that era - its characters and events - does not allow me to judge the historical accuracy of this work, the fact that James McBride makes the story seem real marks it as extraordinary historical fiction.
Readers who enjoy period, personal narratives such "Little Big Man," "One Thousand White Women," and "These Is My Words" will find "The Good Lord Bird" is an excellent choice. After reading "The Good Lord Bird", those who have never explored the other works of James McBride may want to add those books to their reading list. "The Good Lord Bird" is a 5-star book and one that I am pleased to recommend.
on September 17, 2013
Captivating fictionalized retelling of the famous John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry pre- Civil War told through the eyes of a child. Not your ordinary child. "Little Onion" as she is called is a 12 year old slave that finds herself freed and traveling with Old John Brown and his fellow abolitionists through Kansas after her father is killed in a barber shop shootout. But "she" is really a "he" called Henry, a mistake Old John Brown made early on that never found its way to the truth. This group of odd misfits, led by the Old Man and including many of his own grown sons, are searching for the perfect way to do the Lords work by ending slavery once and for all. Old Man avoids capture, bullets by a fraction of a hair and performs hour long sermons in the middle of the battlefield. The main characters in the novel are funny, smart and shockingly likable. The writing is superb and storyline interesting. But fellow readers, my one and only drawback. It is very very long. I felt like it could have had an incredible impact and been about 100 pages shorter to get the same effect. The Good Lord Bird: A Novel
on April 13, 2014
When I read the brief synopsis I was curious as to how the author would make this story work. After the first few pages I thought perhaps I was missing something. Was this a comedy? A history lesson? For me, it was neither. The narration is supposed to be in the voice of a slave. The observations and language are too sophisticated for an uneducated person and the attempts at humor left me cold. The only positive thing I can say about this novel is that it made me want to read a non-fiction account of John Brown's exploits. I am astounded that a novel of this caliber won the National Book Award. I will be less apt to purchase future winners after reading this book.
I got this because of the advance buzz, and it seemed moderately interesting, and I've always been intrigued by the story of John Brown. I was a bit concerned what I'd think of the first-person narration in its consistent dialect form, since that can sometimes get a little tiresome.
On all measures, James McBride succeeded and then some. It's not history of course, and McBride takes a variety of liberties with true facts, but it seems a believeable story of John Brown's fantatical - and totally righteous - efforts against slavery. McBride mixes historical events within the actions of his characters, so what happened often DID happen, while he fictionalizes the nuts and bolts of how it all went down.
The narrator, Little Onion, is laugh out loud funny. The book is written as an account told by a nearly 100-year-old Onion (Henry Shackleford) to a fellow church member in 1942, so similar to "Little Big Man." It's a brilliant move by McBride, because Onion is not a reliable narrator. Maybe it all happened just this way (in the fictional world), maybe it didn't.
John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are all historical figures brought to life. In Douglass case, it's not a sympathetic portrayal, but a funny one. Tubman is hard as a rock, and Brown is both clearly mad, while also totally in control. While fictional, I imagine there's some truth to how these figures were in real life - nobody's a saint for real.
While I was worried how I'd respond to the dialect, it was the opposite - McBride has created a narrator's voice that is amazingly consistent and hysterical.
If you think the following phrase is funny, I think you'll appreciate the whole book. While out-of-context, I think it shows the overall tone of Little Onion's narration:
"All that blitzing and curtsying pressured me, and I got the thirst, needed a jag, a sip of whiskey, to clear me out. Sipping blisters at Miss Abby's had whetted my whistle for tasting the giddy water when things growed tight, and once I got off the freezing trail and fell into the good eating life, I growed thirsty from all that squeezed-up, settled-down living."
Read that voice out loud for 400 pages, and Onion should come to life for you. He's often a coward, mealy-mouthed, makes stupid mistakes and isn't all that dependable. In other words, like every 13-year-old boy you ever met (never mind that he's posing as a girl for almost all the novel).
It's not all laughs - this is a story about slavery. McBride reminds us of that with lines that should cut pretty deep, a reminder of America's Original Sin, and how we haven't done as good a job learning the lesson as we might want to think:
"Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don't know your wants. He don't know your needs or feelings or what's inside you, for you ain't equal to him in no measure. You just a *** to him. A thing, like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs or wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don't eat bisquits, or can't suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail."
I'm not saying life is like that today, but it sure was like that in 1859. No matter how "good" a slaveholder was, how well he treated his property, that was the worldview of the slaveholding upper class.
McBride doesn't take just the easy way, though. In a few lines, he manages to make the slaveholders not exactly sympathetic but more three-dimensional than most narratives would have the courage to be, like when McBride writes about Onion's owner, Dutch Henry:
"Not to mention Dutch had a stall barn, several cows and chickens, two mules, two horses, a slaughterhouse, and a tavern. Dutch had a lot on him. He didn't sleep but two or three hours a night. Fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something like a slave himself."
He's not of course - but it gives the other side of life in 1859; it was brutal and hard, and there was no time for relaxation or good feelings; people could rationalize owning slaves, because life drove everybody down, slave and owner alike. Most author's would be scared away of showing that side.
John Brown's ill-fated mission to Harper's Ferry fails of course, thanks in part to Onion's bumbling (though it never could have succeeded). One of Brown's hostages - both in McBride's fiction and in real life - was Col. Lewis Washington, George Washington's great-nephew. A slaveholder (like his great-uncle), Lewis ended up siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War. We have our heroes, but if you dig too deep, you find out they aren't such good men after all. John Brown doesn't come out of this book looking like any kind of good man, but if I was in McBride's fictional world, I'd like to think I'd be on John Brown's side, before George Washington's.
on May 10, 2015
While the "The Good Lord Bird" is entertaining , it is also a deeply flawed book. The plot line of the book follows John Brown through years prior and up to his historic raid on Harper's Ferry. The narrative is told in the first person through the eyes of a former ex-slave boy who disguises himself as a girl and travels as John Brown's trusted companion.
The story itself is compelling and I understand that, because this is a work of fiction, the author has a greater license to depart from historical fact. However, the author's choice of the departure for the sake of humor are often misguided. In particular, his depiction of Frederick Douglass as a drunken child molester hits hollow as being funny, and there is no evidence in history that he was of this character. Likewise, the author does little to recreate the dialect of the time period. Additionally, the book is repetitive on certain subjects, such as John Brown's praying as well as the narrator's attempts and struggles to "come out' as a boy. Overall, while I enjoyed the book, it is hard to overlook its problems.
on August 25, 2013
Who'd have thought Civil War abolitionist John-never-stop-preaching-and-praying-Brown's escapades could be so hilarious as told retrospectively by an ancient men, Henry, who'd been part of all that but not as Henry. No, he'd been (she'd been) Henrietta. James McBride quite clearly has been strongly and wonderfully influence by Mark Twain, for Henrietta is a Huck Finn but far more humorous in my opinion. This is the novel Quentin Tarantino might also have envisioned: think "Django Unchained." Or Mel Brooks with "Blazing Saddles."
Or "The Producers" in which a Jew pulls out all the stop with "Springtime for Hitler." This novel could only have been written by a black person, a well-educated one and a person with a very rich imagination. John Brown and his rowdy bunch including a gaggle of sons are raising hell in Kansas and Missouri when they discover Henry, a tad bit of a slave, now freed--but only sort of because he has to ride with this bunch as they seek out the slaughter all the "rebs" they can find while all the "rebs" are doing their best to slaughter Brown and his gang. This is the exactly the John Brown you meet in dry-toned history tomes.
Several years encompass the novel, but when Henrietta is 12 s/he ends up in a whore house and meets a mulatto prostitute named Pie. Here is a taste of the first person narrator: "The sight of them two chocolate love knobs standing there like fresh biscuits slowed my step, I reckon, long enough for Miss Abby [she is the owner of the brothel], who was hot on my tail, to grab at my bonnet and rip it in half just as I dove under Pie's bed." And then a little later this: "[Pie] throwed my dress up, and seed my true nature dangling somewhere down there between her knees at full salute, being that all that wrestling and tugging was a wonderment to the fringlings and tinglings of a twelve-year-old who never knowed nature's ways firsthand. I couldn't help myself." That, potential readers of this novel, is a taste of the fun you'll have with this narrator. It is filled with such zingers.