The Good Lord Bird

April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

James McBride won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, set on the verge of the Civil War. Little Onion, a slave boy initially mistaken for a girl by the abolitionist John Brown, is our narrator. Onion is more or less freed against his will when his father is killed in a scuffle between John Brown and white pro-slavers. The book is written in a vernacular, from start to finish, which can be a bit distracting to read, but eventually I got used to the cadence, and, admittedly, Onion’s voice never left me; whereas had McBride only dabbled with the vernacular language, I imagine I would’ve begun reading in my own voice instead of hearing Onion’s.

The setting is well-drawn as we travel through Kansas, slave territories, and free states with Little Onion and John Brown’s misfit band. There is a great deal of history surrounding John Brown and his actions. The book tells the tale leading up to his capture of Harpers Ferry, VA and concludes with Brown’s death. Other historical characters such as Frederick Douglass make an appearance.

McBride has been criticized for the rather humorous approach to such a serious topic, yet, he discusses in several interviews that this is precisely why he chose to be more humorous about it. This isn’t slapstick comedy by any means, nor is it dark comedy, but John Brown is painted into a proselytizing nutter, mixing up Bible verses and making some of his own up, while at the same time murdering pro-slavers. Brown very much believed in action over talk when it came to ending slavery and men like Douglass stood opposed to his actions, condemning them as suicidal.

Multiple viewpoints are offered on the notion of slavery, allowing readers to dabble in various thought processes and perhaps come to understand why a great many slaves didn’t just revolt when they had greater numbers on their side. Oftentimes the saying is true, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

The book is well-written and enjoyable. If nothing else it has made me want to learn more about John Brown. I don’t believe he was as crazy as McBride portrayed, and clearly he was an intelligent and strategic man, or perhaps terribly lucky, to have taken Harper’s Ferry and outwitted the many people hunting him, from Federal agents to slave-owners with vendettas.

You find a copy of this at the NGL on the 3rd floor @ PS3613 .C28 G66 2013.

Watch this video segment of the Civil War on John Brown and Harpers Ferry.

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