The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2013, 417 pp
I read this for the Tournament of Books. As of this morning, it won its fourth round and could very well go on to win the Tournament. It also received the 2013 National Book Award. I've not read either of James McBride's previous novels even though I loved his memoir, The Color of Water. I wasn't expecting to like The Good Lord Bird that much so I'm happy to be able to say I did.
I have recently complained about satire not successfully done in The Dinner by Herman Koch and praised it as well done in Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Both of those books went down in the first round of TOB. I'm not sure James McBride is on a winning streak due to his satire, but in my opinion it is the most impeccably done of the three but is also so subtle, it is easy to miss.
The story of John Brown and his ill-fated raid on the Harper's Ferry armory is one you always hear about but without much detail. Now I have possibly more detail that I know what to do with, but I certainly know what happened. Thank you James McBride for turning your research into an entertaining story.
McBride's narrator is Onion, freed from slavery by John Brown but curiously enslaved to the man in other ways. As a scrappy 12-year-old boy pretending to be a girl, he is an unreliable source of information whose combination of innocence and self-protective impulses provide wry interpretations of John Brown, abolitionists, and the white man. By the end I was pretty sure Onion's voice was James McBride, a trick requiring some very cool literary skill.
You may wonder how the Civil War got started. If you have read much literature about the war, you will have come across numerous answers to that question. If you believe James McBride, it was the cauldron of Bleeding Kansas which spawned a man like John Brown, driven by the word of God to free all the slaves; whose fanaticism put him in Harper's Ferry at just the right time.
But then you finish The Good Lord Bird, nearly convinced that maybe the author was just putting you on. As one slave character says to Onion, "Every nigger got the same job. Their job is to tell a story the white man likes."
(The Good Lord Bird is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in July, 2014)