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McBride pays tribute to John Brown with The Good Lord Bird

I’m not sure if you can call James McBride a prolific author. To his credit, he’s only published four books but when the first is considered a literary masterpiece, The Color of Water (1996), you can excuse the lack of published works since. (McBride’s 2002 novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was adapted into the 2008 film of the same name directed by Spike Lee.)

In August, McBride’s newest novel was published. And despite the fact that The Good Lord Bird was released four months ago, I just recently got wind of the book and picked it up. McBride’s love of history, as evident with Miracle that detailed the all-black 92nd Infantry Division (also known as the Buffalo Soldiers) is on display again with The Good Lord Bird. This time, the subject matter is abolitionist John Brown of Harpers Ferry infamy.

McBride's newest novel, The Good Lord Bird (417 ppgs), won the National Book Award for Fiction.

McBride’s newest novel, The Good Lord Bird (417 pages), won the National Book Award for Fiction.

The Good Lord Bird is a “semi-biographical” satire about John Brown, told through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, who spent four years of his childhood a member of Brown’s army — as a Negro girl nicknamed ‘Onion’ because Shackleford ate Brown’s lucky onion the first night under Brown. The novel details the six years leading up to Brown’s historic battle at Harpers Ferry as told by Shackleford.

Produced from “notes” recovered from the church Shackleford attended as an adult, McBride’s writing of the “memoir” is absolutely amazing. He captures the voice of an elderly black citizen (in this case a man) to a T, sprinkling humor throughout Shackleford’s tale such as this passage of when the bond between ‘Onion’ and Brown’s son Frederick, to whom is described to have a “muddy” brain, begin:

When I come to, Fred was standing over me, and he weren’t smiling no more neither. The fall had throwed my dress up around my head, and my new bonnet was turned ’round backward. I ought to mention here that I had never known nor worn undergarments as a child, having been raised in a tavern of lowlifes, elbow benders and bullyboys. … He (Fred) said, “Are you a sissy?” Why, if you have to ask, I said, I don’t know.

The humor, on a larger scale, demonstrates that despite your life circumstances, despite how bleak your life seems, life is funny sometimes. Life is it’s own comedy.

McBride captures the struggle. The Good Lord Bird is a lesson of survival. Shackleford, who was once a slave boy but was thrust into “freedom,” found that being a girl was the best way to survive the wilderness. The novel also serves a semi-memorandum for Brown.

I do have an issue. The novel is moreso about Brown instead of Shackleford. Shackleford’s story is intertwined with Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, like a small thread to a larger quilt. But I wished McBride would have explored Shackleford’s transition into adulthood.

McBride opens the book with a prologue of a mock Associated Press story of the discovery of Shackleford’s memoir. Within that story,  it was “reported” that the parishioners believed that Shackleford was a woman until he made a pass at a woman. I would have loved to know at what point in Shackleford’s life he reverted back into being a woman and what caused it.

Ending the novel with Brown’s hanging left me a bit empty. It left me feeling indifferent. Having a “different” perspective on one of the nation’s most historic events was great storytelling by an “eye witness account,” but having a prologue about a part of ‘Onion’s’ life that we don’t witness leave me wondering if Shackleford’s life will come in more volumes.

The failed ending of The Good Lord Bird  doesn’t take away from the storytelling, doesn’t take away from McBride’s purpose — to pay homage to John Brown. To give Brown new life and that dramatic event new life. The novel is a success because of it.

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