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October 2016: Historical Fiction > The Good Lord Bird--James McBride (5 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Another 2013 published book read for the September tag but fine here as well.

A wonderful tragicomedy about the life of the abolitionist John Brown told from the perspective of a fictional mascot nicknamed the Onion, a freed slave boy assumed to be a girl.
The child, Henry, is ten and serving as a shoeshine boy with his barber father in Missouri, when John Brown’s raiders attack the tavern of their owner and abduct him after his father is accidentally killed in the gunfire. Henry plays it safe to accede to their presumption he is a girl and assumes the name Henrietta. Brown keeps him close to hand as he considers “her” to bring good luck. Though this literary license we get a realistic version of a man I had long just pigeonholed as an insane and violent fanatic and religious nut. Henry notices a surprising kindness in the man from the start:
One of the mice fell off the rock crevice directly onto the Old Man’s map. The Old Man studied it a moment, and it studied him. …He carefully picked up the mouse and gently placed it back in the rock crevice with the rest of its brother mice, and they set there quiet as pups, peeking over the Old Man’s shoulder as he stared at his map. I reckoned they was like me.

Henry hopes to run away, but initial attempts fail and he becomes resigned to accompanying Brown’s rag-tag band around Kansas fighting pro-slavery settlers and militia. He develops a special friendship with one of Brown’s sons in the group, Fred, who is intellectually challenged but keeps Henry’s secret when he learns he is a boy, assuming him to be a “sissy”. He feels bad about pretending to be a girl to the others, but he takes naturally to the art of it as a means to garner deference and protection:
Truth is, lying came natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss. Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.

Henry has a jaundiced view about religion and like some of Brown’s sons in the group has to struggle to tolerate his framing of all their actions into fulfilling God’s plan. But as with Huck Finn when Sunday sermons could make him feel better nigh til Tuesday, Henry gets some good vibes from Brown’s eloquence:
The Old Man’s prayers growed up right before your eyes; they was all connected, like stairways running from one floor to another in a house, whereas Fred’s prayers was more like barrels and clothing chests throwed about a fine sitting room. His prayers shot this way and that, cutting hither and yon, and in this way an hour passed.

At one point, Henry gets captured by a pro-slavery yahoo who takes him to a bordello in a Missouri town. To avoid getting shanghaied into the trade, Henry makes himself useful to the star prostitute there, Pie, who smites his 12-year old heart from the beginning:
…the feeling of ice cream running down my little red lane in summertime weren’t nothing compared to seeing that bundle of beauty coming down them stairs that first time. She would blow the hat off your head.
She was a mulatto woman. Skin as brown as a deer’s hide, with high cheekbones and big round dewy eyes as big as silver dollars. She was a head taller than me but seemed taller. She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas. She walked like a warm room full of smoke. I weren’t no stranger to nature’s ways then, coming on the age of twelve … This woman had the kind of rhythm that you could hear a thousand miles down the Missouri. I wouldn’t throw her outta bed for eating crackers. She was all class.


Thus, you can see there is plenty of comic relief to this tall tale. As with Twain, McBride hides a lot of truth amid all the fools and their shenanigans. Henry ends up back with Brown after a couple of years and a few plot twists worthy of Skakespeare. On a trip to New England with Brown to raise money from speeches to crowds of abolitionists, we get a priceless scene with Frederick Douglass in which Henry barely escapes his lecherous advances by getting him drunk. I won’t spoil that, but I will share how the wisdom Henry acquires in beholding the fund raising efforts allows him to separate his growing love for Brown from the strange politics that eventually spawned the Civil War:
You would’a thunk that every Pro Slaver, including Dutch, Miss Abby, Chase and all those other low drummers, scammers, four-flushers, and pickpockets, who lived mostly off pennies and generally didn’t treat the Negro any worse than they treated each other, was a bunch of cranks, heathens, and drunks who runned around murdering each other while the Free Staters spent all day setting in church at choir practice and making paper cutout dolls on Wednesday nights. …
He weren’t much of a speaker, to be honest, but for once he got the wind in his sails about our Dear Maker Who Restoreth Our Fortunes, he got ‘em going, and the word spread fast, so by the ime we hit the next church, all he had to say was, “I’m John Brown from Kansas, and I’s fighting slavery,” and they roared. They called for them rebels’ heads, announced they’d trounce ‘em, bounce ‘e, kill ‘em,, deaden ‘em where they stood. Some of the women broken into tears once the Old Man spoke. It made me a bit sad, truth be to tell it, to watch them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren’t hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west, to my mind. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.


Soon thereafter, Brown hatches his famous plot to kick off a slave revolt by taking the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia), inspired in part by the successful slave revolution in Haiti. Advanced members of his group rent a farmhouse nearby to prepare and to secretly inspire slaves in the region in advance of the attack. Henry gets tapped to make communications with local slaves about the plan, which most but not all judge to be absurd and hopeless. It has a Zelig feel for Henry to be in the middle of all this, including the famous meeting between Brown and Douglass in which the latter refuses to join in. The comedy gets darker as the action gets more thrilling. In the end, only 22 men participate in the raid, including 8 whites and 14 blacks, which succeeds but does not spark a broader rebellion. They are soon surrounded by militia and later overwhelmed by federal troops, which ironically include Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, future star generals of the Confederacy. The publicity surrounding the trial and execution of the survivors, Brown and six others, gives Brown a platform and support for his cause, but in the process intensely scares the pro-slavery population, pushing the political process closer to the kick-off of the Civil War less than two years later.

All in all, this came off to me a brilliant, funny, and moving performance by McBride. I already loved his memoir and family biography, The Color of Water and his inspiring novel about slavery, Song Yet Sung, which I also recommend.


message 2: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 5495 comments Excellent review, Michael. So glad you liked it.

I need to get to The Color of Water and I will have completed reading McBride's books. Most recently I readKill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, which is a nonfiction and quite inciteful especially in these times.


message 3: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 696 comments Michael wrote: "Another 2013 published book read for the September tag but fine here as well.

A wonderful tragicomedy about the life of the abolitionist John Brown told from the perspective of a fictional mascot..."


Glad you liked it and a fine review. You covered it well.


message 4: by Kristel (new)

Kristel (kristelh) | 696 comments Booknblues wrote: "Excellent review, Michael. So glad you liked it.

I need to get to The Color of Water and I will have completed reading McBride's books. Most recently I read[book:Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for ..."

I read about the author that he got so interested with John Brown that he read everything he could find on him. I think his nonfiction book would be a good one to read.


message 5: by Ladyslott (new)

Ladyslott | 1880 comments I loved this book. Nice review!


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