Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

Henry Shackleford is a young slave boy living in Kansas, when John Brown enters the tavern where Henry's father works. In the ensuing set-to, Henry's father is killed and Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, declares her free, and sweeps her up to join his ragtag army as something of a good luck charm. Henry is afraid to admit he is a boy (although some people he meets along the way figure that out) and travels with Brown for several years, dressed as a girl and responding to Henrietta (or Onion, his nickname). Onion's adventures rival those of Gulliver--he takes part in raids that end up with the beheading of pro-slavery Kansans, spends months in a Missouri brothel, acting as servant to a beautiful black prostitute; travels to the Northeast and Canada on a fund-raising trip with Brown, meeting Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass along the way;  and is sent ahead to Harper's Ferry to "hive the bees"--recruit slaves and free blacks to take part in the planned attack. All the while, Onion struggles with his identity as a young black man involuntarily freed from slavery and living as a girl. This struggle takes place in the shadow of a man so certain of his identity as the liberator of the slaves that he risks his own life and that of his sons for the cause. Brown is portrayed as a mad man for God and the cause, and McBride's depiction helps the reader understand how delusion and passion mingled in the man.

The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award for 2013, so it was obviously well-received on some fronts, with many reviewers lauding it for its humorous treatment of a serious subject.  As I think I've said before, I fear that I am losing my sense of humor with age, as the book simply wasn't very funny to me.  I did appreciate the depiction of Brown's complexity, at once admirable and pitiable and respected McBride's attempt to explore issues of racial and gender identity through the character of Onion. On the other hand, I had some quibbles with the writing in the book. Foreshadowing--which, given the historical nature of many of the events, was generally unnecessary--was heavy-handed (there was a point at which I thought if I ever read the phrase "I never saw him/her again," I would scream). Some of the slang terms used seemed out of place for the time (e.g., something was a "hot mess," people "sucked up" to those in authority)--an odd error considering that McBride must have done tons of research for the book. I also did not understand why McBride put the book in an awkward frame: an elderly man died and, in his effects were found interviews he did with Henry Shackleford; the narrative is presented as the contents of the interviews. Through the introduction we do learn that Henry lived at least part of his adult life as a woman, so perhaps that is the purpose, but since we never return to the later years of his life, it seemed like a waste.

The most serious reservation I have about the book is its presentation of Frederick Douglass as a hard-drinking, womanizing (or perhaps more accurately child-molesting) coward. Undoubtedly, Douglass had his flaws, but this characterization goes well beyond what is documentable (at least as far as I know) and, as an admirer of Douglass's better self, I resented it. It concerns me that people who read this book and don't know much about Douglass may go away with a negative view of this important figure in U.S. history--which is one of the hesitations I have about historic fiction in general. When it is vividly written, it can become more real than reality.

Favorite passages:
This is what happens when a boy becomes a man; you get stupider.  (Okay, there were some funny bits.)

It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment. And that includes loving somebody. If you can't be your own self, how can you love somebody? How can you be free?

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