History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Novel Approach--
The Color of Historical Fiction: James McBride Spoofs the John Brown Story in The Good Lord Bird

I'm never really sure of how I feel about historical fiction in general, especially when it takes on themes that are dear to me.  The only work of fiction about the Old Man that I have both enjoyed and actually read from cover to cover is Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, which is an amazingly thoughtful effort that engages counter-factual history (which is fiction) in a manner that is moving and multi-perspectival.   I would recommend Fire to anyone and everyone, and I keep it with my John Brown books.  While Russell Banks' widely praised Cloudsplitter (which I keep behind my John Brown books) illustrates the author's great ability as a novelist, I never read it all the way through.  I just got tired of watching the author telling me a story that was not the story I knew to be true, period.  Like the late Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, I'm just not that fond of historical fiction--and frankly there's already too much to read in terms of history to spend more time reading someone else's fictive portrayal of the Old Man. (Still, I have promised to read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which has been fervently recommended to me.) Now there's James McBride's The Good Lord Bird.
. . . it seems a lot of people think that they can engage in meaningful historical reflection by reading novels about real people.  

Before noting The Good Lord Bird, let me add: what annoys me about historical fiction is that it seems a lot of people think that they can engage in meaningful historical reflection by reading novels about real people.  And I think that reflects both error and laziness.  We already live in a culture and generation that is virtually ahistorical and intellectually lazy when it comes to history.  In John Brown's case, it's worse, because lots of people are already grossly misinformed and prejudiced in their thinking due to terrible high school texts, bad TV documentaries, and lots of prejudiced talking heads.  A work of fiction about Brown (even if it is basically friendly) is absolutely the last place that one ought to start thinking about Brown in historical terms.  Yet, inevitably, many will do so, as the following comment reveals from a reader on Goodreads:
Was John Brown a terrorist, martyr, hero, lunatic, saint or deluded fool? After reading The Good Lord Bird I would still hesitate to give a straight answer, although James McBride does appear to be leaning toward a heroic, almost saint-like depiction of the raider of Harper’s Ferry toward the end of this rollicking ride through the latter part of Brown’s life.
I would hope you would hesitate, lady.  I wonder how many biographies of Brown she's read?  Now, this may be something that just happens to John Brown, especially among whites, too many of which presume he is "complicated" and "troubling," and have this big historical problem in their minds about the Old Man that drives them to the latest novel.  Maybe it happens to Lincoln or Henry Ford or Richard Nixon, too, but I doubt it.  It seems to me that whenever someone writes fictional work about John Brown, it is forced to carry water for historical inquiry. Nevertheless, why the *&%! did this reader think she was going to get "a straight answer" about a historical figure from someone's fictional rendition?  Frankly, it's kind of stupid, yet this is the issue that always comes up with another work of historical fiction about John Brown.

As I said, I am a biographer and historian, and I teach history and theology.  I can never read enough across the disciplines in which I teach and research, so the idea of reading novels is pretty much out of the question.  Furthermore, to unwind by reading a novel completely misses the point for me.  That's what movies are for.  However, the fact that I have little use for fiction (yes, I know there are good arguments for "the power of story," etc.), I know many others love novels and sometimes historical fiction is a starting point for people who want to read history.  To each his own.

Now that I've done my song and dance about fiction, here's some info on The Good Lord Bird, and you can decide for yourself whether you want to read it:

Publishers Weekly

"Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre–Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it,” reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet na├»ve voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl—a mistake he embraces for safety’s sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown’s violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word “trim” temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him “Onion,” their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves (“hiving bees”) to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided."
James McBride

New York Times Book Review

"A MAGNIFICANT NEW NOVEL by the best-selling author James McBride…a brilliant romp of a novel…McBride—with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir 'The Color of Water,' an instant classic -- pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page."

Library Journal

"McBride continues exploring the long history of America's color line, begun in his landmark memoir, The Color of Water. A young slave in the Kansas Territory, Henry Shackleford must flee with abolitionist John Brown after Brown clashes with Henry's master. Complicating matters: Brown thinks Henry is a girl, a disguise Henry maintains up to the bold raid on Harpers Ferry."

Kirkus Reviews

"In McBride's version of events, John Brown's body doesn't lie a-mouldering in the grave--he's alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on. The unlikely narrator of the events leading up to Brown's quixotic raid at Harper's Ferry is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed when Brown comes in to liberate some slaves. Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he's a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion's life, but they're reunited a few months before the debacle at Harper's Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass gets tight and chases after the nubile Onion. The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown's fanaticism increasingly approaches "lunacy" as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he's doing the Lord's work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown's execution. McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown's activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism."

Goodreads (four stars)

"Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival."


James McBride’s new novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is his second in a row to explore the issue of slavery in the years just prior to the Civil War. It was while researching his last book, “Song Yet Sung,” that he became fascinated with the story of the abolitionist John Brown, who led the violent slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, West Virgina.

“I’d heard John Brown’s name many times in the past but never really quite knew who he was,” McBride says. “When I started to research him, I became fascinated with his story. The challenge was to find a way to write about him that was interesting and funny.”

Given the dark subject matter of the time period and of Brown’s tragic final days, the humor is the most surprising element of “The Good Lord Bird.” The story is told through the eyes of Onion, a young slave boy who becomes a part of Brown’s crew under the mistaken assumption that he’s a girl. Over the next few years, he crosses paths with luminaries
like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the latter depicted making drunken advances on the disguised Onion.
“My approach is to make fun of everybody,” McBride explains. “In real life, I admire Frederick Douglass. He was a great man, but he was flawed as well. The people who built this country weren’t gods. They were flawed people, and you often wonder if the women in their lives
had the chance to write the stories of these men, how their account would read.”

McBride himself was surprised at the opportunities for satire afforded by Onion’s disguise. “The business of identity – self identity, inner identity – always drives the outer story,” he says. “I wanted Onion’s identity issues to be strong enough to push him to freedom at the end
of the book. I really didn’t consider all of the factors that would go into this character playing a girl at the outset; I just thought it was funny. Then as the book evolved and he got into these situations where he had to pretend to be a girl, it thickened the plot and just became delicious.”

In the end, McBride came to admire his subject, despite the misguided violence of some of his actions. “I think John Brown was one of the greatest Americans that ever set foot in this land,” he says. “John Brown was a man who represented an ideal and was willing to die for
it. He was way ahead of his time. I admire his sense of religion, his sense of purpose, and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue of human rights.”

Source: Shaun Brady, "Forging a 'delicious' tale out of difficult history," Metro (15 Aug. 2013)

Review by Christine Brunkhorst in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 17 Aug.
Review by Margaret Quamme in the Columbus Dispatch, 18 Aug.
Review by Kevin Nance in USA Today, 18 Aug.
Review by Joel Lyons, in New York Daily News, 21 Aug.

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