Monday, September 9, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: August 20, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 420
Reading time: about a week

From GoodReads: Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl. Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

My review: To begin with, The Good Lord Bird has an interesting and (mostly - it does, after all, include the violence that follows John Brown) enjoyable story. You have a young slave kidnapped by an incredibly insane Brown and forced to pretend he's female because Brown fails to realize the kid is male. Re-christened Onion, he accompanies Brown and his men for several years until the whole thing at Harper's Ferry, so readers get a great overview of the events that led up to the raid as well as the raid itself. There's also some name-dropping interactions with such figures as Frederick Douglass (you will never again think of him in the same way) and Harriet Tubman. Add in some occasional humor, and you have a pretty good novel.

But it's not really that simple. McBride has several messages running underneath the plot that make the book so much more awesome. Identity is one, especially given how Onion is viewed by almost everyone as a girl for years. But mostly, there's the idea of how abolitionists such as Brown didn't, perhaps couldn't, really understand those they were trying to help. Brown consistently believes that both enslaved and free blacks will just run over to help him end slavery, little realizing the social and psychological complexities that influence their actions and decisions. With this novel, McBride provides a much different view on anti-slavery efforts than the one we're usually taught that focuses on white abolitionists and a few famous black figures. It turns a pretty good historical novel into an utterly fantastic one.

Issues: At least in my ARC copy, there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies between ages/year ranges and, especially, how/when people died during the raid and its aftermath. I'm not sure if these were intentional or just typos.

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