The Good Lord Bird by James McBride - (Amazon link here)
I love the way one Goodreads reviewer stated it “If Mark Twain and Mel Brooks had ever collaborated, they would have invented a comic character like (the narrator).” That is SUCH a fantastic way to characterize this!
The narrator is Henry(Etta) Shackleford who is the child of a slave who is “freed” by a band of crusading abolitionists led by John Brown. Brown rather clumsily ends up killing Henry’s father in the act of freeing him and so feels compelled to take in the orphaned child. Written using the language and phrasing of the time (1800s Kansas) the tone is frequently comical and, of course, child like since Henry is gauged to be about 11 or 12 when he is absorbed into Browns motley group of “soldiers”. Oh, and right from the start Henry is mistaken for a girl and while he is at first confused and wants to correct that error, he quickly realizes that the indignity of wearing a dress is mitigated by the fact that he is not expected to fight, and he decides that is just fine with him!
There are two main stories running through the book. Henry’s own personal story and the telling through his eyes of the people and events of the abolition movement culminating in the raid on Harper’s Ferry and John Brown’s capture and eventual hanging. It is at this point that I will confess to having to stop and look up the names of the historically based characters such as John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas to be reminded of actual roles.. Yes, 30+ years later those high school history classes may have faded from memory!
Most of the time, Henry thinks Brown is just bat-shit insane. And it seems as if most of John Brown’s army judges him similarly but they are also scared to death of him and also, completely drawn in to his obsession with believing that he is doing God’s work by freeing the slaves. Brown is described as basically OCD with his ability to launch into prayers and sermons for hours on end, then burying himself into the study and drawing up of maps and plans for the next attack on the slave holders. In fact, he would get so caught up in his own missives with the lord and hyper planning that he would be completely blind to the people who betrayed him along the way. At one point, Henry describes The Old Man “He was a good, kind lunatic and he couldn’t no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn’t speak their language.” At the end though, in his final conversation with Brown as the old man sits in a jail cell the night before his hanging, Henry finally concludes that Brown was perhaps more sane and insightful than he seemed:
‘The old face, crinkled and dented with canals running every which way, pushed and shoved up against itself for a while, till a big old smile busted out from beneath ‘em all, and his gray eyes fairly glowed. It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren’t no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside him, I saw it clear for the first time. I knowed then, too, that he knowed what I was – from the very first.’
I highly recommend reading this book. Even though the topic is really heavy of course, and there is plenty of blood shed – it is told in such a way that I ended up laughing many times and thoroughly enjoying my time spent with The Onion (Henrys nickname) and The Old Man.
In fact, there are so many fun phrases such as “moral susion” (aka booze) and “hive the bees” (round up the folks) that my fellow book club members and I couldn’t help, but throw them around a bit at our gathering. We did talk about the book for, oh, five? minutes and the 3 of us who read it did like it a lot, and I was happy to find out I was not the only one who ran to Wikipedia for a quick history brush up! We’ve also managed to hive a couple more bees so the next gathering there could be up to six of us! Hopefully we all get to read the book this time – but, if not, we will still have a lovely time chatting around some good food and moral susion :)
Oh, the next book, after some false starts, will be This House is Haunted by John Boyne.
The false starts? Well, our hostess quite generously printed out a lovely flow chart of books in varying genres for all of us (she also handed out some lovely bookmarks & porcelain cups, and the rest of us stated there won’t be repeats of such things at our houses because we are not that organized or creative!). We decided to take one of the flow charts down to the dart board in her game room and simply throw darts at the titles to see what “hit”! Unfortunately we didn’t first make sure all the titles are actually OUT yet and when I got home to send out the info to the group (I’m next hostess), I noticed that the book wasn’t available until July! So, I took a penny an closed my eyes and dropped it on the flow chart to maintain the integrity of our selection process (cough *RANDOM* cough) and THEN I made sure what it landed on is actually published. So there you go. Have fun reading along with us if you choose. Due to hiving some additional bees and overall Spring commitments, we decided to shoot for the end of April for the next meeting. Let’s go hunt some ghosts!