05/13/2015 by Stephen Silke
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is a significant literary portrait of American fallibility, epecially poignant in light of the embarassing place America find itself with regard to race relations. The novel, published in 2013, winner of the National Book Award for fiction, employs a gender- and racially-ambiguous character as its protagonist. The book asks the question, what does it mean to be a man? and additionally, how possible is it to interact with others without predjudice?
The novel is significant because it points fingers at all Americans, not just The South or The North as the impitus for the civil war. Literarily, it resists the easy answers we like to use to gloss over the racism inherent in our everyday activities. As a portrait, we can see a bit of ourselves in John Brown and in Henry “Onion” Shackleford as they variously confront Truth as an obstacle that requires death for its advancement. I say American, because the novel could not have taken place in any other nation, where in speculative fiction tradition it brings in a set of American icons such as John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas; whether or not McBride’s treatment of them was fair, the characters set up a poignant and funny bit of grappling with the gender and race issues at hand. And the fallibility dealt with in the book is that as humans, no one is innocent when it comes to racism, stereotypes, and looking past injustices that happen right before us; we cannot honestly point the finger at anyone beyond ourselves. When we judge, we must self-apply the same standard. Have we ever held to our own standards perfectly?
The novel takes us into the story of Onion, its protagonist, by way of an oral history dictated then discarded and then found in present times. It can, therefore, contain language that it vibrant and contemporary to us. So it is a pre-civil war-era narrative studded with clever turns of phrase bridging the past with the present. Onion can say, “…for I aimed to get pixilated…” meaning drinking to drunkenness and then a few pages later use a phrase “trench warfare” not coined until 1915, and use them with such facility and cleverness that line after line of quotable Onionisms bandy about hilarously in our heads.
The book is divided into three distinct parts: “Free Deeds,” “Slave Deeds,” and “Resolution,” because Onion goes into slavery, then his slavery is resolved loosely by acts connected to John Brown’s harrowing raid on Harper’s Ferry near the end of the book. Brown is, in addition to Onion, the novel’s heroic and terrible focus with McBride giving us much more about Brown than any other character. Brown as dynamic leader and as charlatan and as buffoon and as pious maverick; the portrait is clever and challenging to history’s preconceptions and when we see his set of circumstances we are in awe at his accomplishments as a person. To McBride’s credit Brown becomes more enigmatic the more we learn about him—wise, and clever, and wonderful, a satisfying subject in a gem of a novel.
5 of 5 Stars—a whole-hearted endorsement.