The Good Lord Bird
Was John Brown a terrorist, martyr, hero, lunatic, saint or deluded fool? After reading The Good Lord Bird I would still hesitate to give a straight answer, although James McBride does appear to be leaning toward a heroic, almost saint-like depiction of the raider of Harper’s Ferry toward the end of this rollicking ride through the latter part of Brown’s life.
McBride introduces a fictional character into Brown’s small band of followers: the boy Henry Shackleford, who, in a hilarious moment of confusion, takes on a new identity as a girl and finds it too difficult, or frequently too convenient, to shake off. Henry’s lie is clearly identified with the much bigger lie every black character has to assume in order to survive in a world of slavery and endemic racism, while the white characters appear blind to many different levels of truth. Even John Brown, whom Henry admires as an unstoppable force of nature, is seen by him as changing the truth to fit his own views, particularly in his lack of understanding that the slaves he is trying to free are often far more concerned about simple survival than about his principles.
The Good Lord Bird takes the iconic events of Brown’s crusade and puts them in a different light, both cruder and more nuanced than the standard story, with unfaltering pace and writing that is finely lyrical even when the characters’ voices are vulgar. The constant use of the word ‘nigger’ may challenge some readers, while others may dislike the dark humor of life on the edge of society. It’s likely this novel will draw strong reactions, and for that reason I would recommend it as a must-read to those interested in American history. Time will tell, but given the writing and subject matter, it has the potential to be one of the significant novels of 2013.