Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Good Lord Bird (by James McBride)

This had been on my "to-read" list for a long time, since it won the 2014 Tournament of Books! I sometimes have to gear myself up to read something that tackles the subject of oppression, though -- even in a satirical way, as this one does.

This is the story of a boy named Henry Shakelford, who is freed from slavery (somewhat accidentally) by John Brown, who thinks he is a girl and nicknames him Onion and brings him along on his adventures. And I have to say that it was something I had to push myself to read all the way through -- not because it is grim in any way, but because it's a little discursive and does not always have a clear forward momentum. It's kind of biding time for 2/3 of it leading up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. We even lose track of John Brown for like 100 pages.

But again, it's not grim! The tone of it is humorous and relatively light, considering that it's about -- you know -- slavery. Historical characters and events are woven in but in a less-than reverential way. And in many places it's funny as hell:

"'Tell me. Which books in the Bible do you favor?'
'Oh, I favors 'em all,' Pa said. 'But I mostly like Hezekiel, Ahab, Trotter, and Pontiff the Emperor.'
The Old Man frowned. 'I don't recollect I have read those.'" 

"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."

"I joined a choir in a Pentecostal church after taking a liking to a minister’s wife who slept around to save the wear and tear on her holy husband. I runned behind her several weeks till one morning the pastor gived a rousing sermon ’bout how the truth will set you free, and a feller stood up in the congregation and blurted out, 'Pastor! I got Jesus in my heart! I’m confessing! Three of us in here has porked your wife!'”

So it's funny and entertaining. But then McBride pulls a masterful bait and switch as the book nears its climax, the famous raid on Harpers Ferry. You aren't necessarily expecting it to pack such an emotional punch, and although Onion's narration doesn't lose its satirical tone, the emotion hits you anyway as the tragedy and import of the event starts to hit him, and us at the same time. McBride sticks the landing wonderfully.

The portrayal of John Brown in this novel reminded me forcefully of Don Quixote, and in fact the structure of the book reminded me of Don Quixote as well. It's about a religious lunatic on a crusade that's doomed to fail. He is skinny and looks older than his years, he wanders the desert, he inspires half-hearted adulation, he makes promises he can't keep, he barely eats. I mean, he's Don Quixote!  And at the end, you realize hat for all his insanity and all his failures, his raid on Harpers Ferry did ultimately kick off the civil war and John Brown did, ultimately, end slavery. The figure of amusement becomes a tragic hero.

“Some things in this world just ain't mean to be, not in the times we want 'em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that's to come. There's a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that's a heavy load to bear.”

Also, the title is a reference to a bird that makes you say "Good Lord!," the now-most-likely-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I loved that theme too.

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