Friday, March 28, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is the winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. A historical novel set in an extremely difficult and violent period in our nation’s past, it tells the story of abolitionist John Brown and his single-handed, single-minded effort to end slavery in the United States. In the late 1850’s John Brown led a small band of armed raiders into Kansas, intent on kidnapping slaves and freeing them. The narrator of this book is Henry Shackleford, a young slave boy taken by Brown after a gun fight kills both his father and master. Because Henry is dressed in a sack, common attire for slave children, Brown believes him to be a girl and no amount of argument can dissuade him. This delusion symbolizes Brown’s fatal flaw: “He never remembered nothing but what he wanted to, and didn't tell himself nothing but what he only really wanted to believe.” Eventually Henry (Henrietta) embraces his girlhood because it keeps him out of the violence and battles Brown seeks out. For nearly four years, Henry travels with Brown and his group of abolitionists. He grows to know Brown well. He sees him clearly for who he is— a sincere, deeply religious, self-righteous, well-intentioned, dangerous man who had no doubt about his mission. He listened to the counsel of no man, only that of his God. And his God always told him what he wanted to hear. Eventually Brown abandons his raids to free slaves and plans instead to start a war for this cause. He tries to raise an army of Negroes. Blind to the fact that most of the Negroes, slave and free, have too much common sense to follow a mad man’s folly, he persists with his plan. His first move is to raid the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry to secure rifles and ammunition for his troops. This is also his last move. His delusions finally catch up with him. Out manned and outgunned, most of his “army” is killed and Brown is captured. Henry, still disguised as a girl, manages to escape and lives to tell his tale many years later. John Brown was imprisoned and hung but the fear he inspired among Southern whites is believed to have been a cause for the later secession and Civil War in the United States.  It is not easy to write a humorous book about tragedy and suffering, but James McBride manages the right ironic tone to successfully tell John Brown’s story. 
Check out The Good Lord Bird @ the library!