Review of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird

the good lord bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

So, lest you think that I just haven’t been reading, let me say straight away that I have indeed been soaking up the fiction. I just haven’t been blown away by anything lately. Believe me, it’s been rough.

For some reason I got caught up in the whole Oprah’s Book Club craze and the number of five-star reviews the books in question had. One of the offenders was Imbolo Imbue’s Behold The Dreamers (2016) which, I’ll admit, while I was reading, I couldn’t put down. It is definitely a page-turner. However, after I was done reading I just kind of closed the book and sighed, “meh”. Not the lasting impression one wants from almost 400 pages of investment.

Nonetheless, I will say that I did find a couple of novels that, while they did not wow me at the first first reading, I found would be useful in the classroom. So I will let you know what they were and will be reviewing them as the semester winds down.

Last week during my usual trolling of Amazon’s website, drooling over the latest releases  and admonishing myself for the shameful number of books that I have on my bookshelves with no intention of getting to anytime soon, I happened upon the most recent gem from the wondrous James McBride, a short story collection entitled Five Carat Soul (2017). I didn’t buy it, but I remembered that one of my favorite novels of all time, Song Yet Sung (2009), was by a younger him. Then there is the memoir that put him on the proverbial literary map, The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (2006) which I haven’t read and doubt that I will. His first novel, Miracle at St. Anna: A Novel of World War II (2003) was adapted into film by  Spike Lee ( the Netflix series based on Lee’s brilliant early film She’s Gotta Have It rocked my world!). I am keen on reading Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016) mostly because the last interview that I saw with James Brown made it clear to me that the genius that he was meant that he was in a lot of pain.

I decided to read The Good Lord Bird (2013) mostly because I love novels with weird titles. They intrigue me. The book description sent me over the top: basically in 1857 Kansas Territory a young slave boy, Henry Shackleford is kidnapped by the infamous John Osawatomie Brown and mistaken for a girl whom Brown decides to call The Onion. The story of Brown’s bible-driven crusade to “free the Negroes” as told by young “Henrietta” aka The Onion, turns out to be less about the evils of slavery and much more of a young boy’s adventure tale.

I had a bit of a hard time getting a handle on the writing at first, assuming that it would follow the general thinking behind novels that have slavery as their subjects–slavery was bad and any struggle against it should be applauded. I talked about the novel to anyone who would listen, so fascinated by this odd creative project that McBride had committed himself to. Finally, while talking with a dear colleague of mine about the narrative I learned that the proper name for the genre is  picaresque: an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. That is surely what The Good Lord Bird is; a beautifully crafted and masterfully conceived and written reimagining of a time that has had such a lasting impact on history through the eyes of a dishonest lazy little boy coming into manhood who masquerades as a girl in order to save his skin. There were a few times when, in the stillness of my home while reading, I found myself shouting “Blasphemy!” Making fun of the legendary Frederick Douglass! I mean, what kind of fool doesn’t desire freedom?!

For a poignant explanation of some of the irreverent humor found in the book see this five minute PBS interview.

 

McBride has definitely got some balls. He takes chances that, I think, with a less skilled writer, would not be possible. But it’s James McBride!! And I trusted that he knew what he was doing. With that trust came a relaxing into the narrative that made for perfect wintertime, snowed in for the weekend reading. It was a 417-page investment well-made. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

For those who aren’t willing to make the time and imaginative investment, The Good Lord Bird is being made into a movie starring Jaden Smith and Liev Schreiber!! Woohoo!

 

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