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The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

wedding gift

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $25.95).

When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—her slave and her half-sister.  Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.

“According to anti-slavery activists, there are over 27 million slaves worldwide.  In fact, there are more slaves today than at any other time in history, including during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when about 11 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the New World.  Drawing inspiration from her work as a human rights lawyer as well as the desire to give a voice to her ancestors kidnapped from Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Marlen Suyapa Bodden wrote a powerful tale of bondage and ultimate freedom in The Wedding Gift based on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800’s.”

Because this novel explores American slavery and resistance, I was very much looking forward to reading it.  I had high hopes for The Wedding Gift in fact.  However, Bodden’s story ultimately disappoints.  The author could have done so much with this novel, but her narrative falls short.

None of the characters in The Wedding Gift are well-developed; they all practically beg to be fleshed out more (and they should have been).    Their voices are too indistinct from one another.  The dialog feels artificial, clumsy, and sometimes even unnatural, and there is just too much of it at times–usually a mistake no experienced author would make.  This, to me, is evidence of Bodden’s background.  She is a lawyer by profession, and this is her first novel.  Yet, take a look at Tara Conklin’s debut novel The House Girl published earlier this year featuring similar themes of slavery and resistance.  Conklin was a lawyer, but her story was not only highly readable but the novel was also well-written.  Bodden’s narrative is unconvincing, and her ending, for me at least, seems contrived and even shocking.

If you are interested in African American slaves and their resistance, I highly recommend Jonathan Odell’s The Healing, Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, and Conklin’s The House Girl.  Bodden’s heart is in the right place, but her execution is off.

I strongly urge you to read this novel for yourself. Perhaps you will see the story in a different light.

 

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial; 368 pages; $15.99)

 

Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels.  Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple 16248070perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world.  She switches gears with The Round House, winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction.  Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen.  A cacophony of voices is unnecessary inThe Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.

Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation.  Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all.  In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law.  Unlike her other books, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.

Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988.  Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped.  To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred.  Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing.  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.

Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid.  The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit.  Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much.  It is too late, however.  Joe is already fixated.

“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack.  Joe wants to avenge his mother and watch the culprit burn.  His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist.  “Mom, listen,” he tells her.  “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him.  I’m going to kill him for you.”

You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise.  You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him.  It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.

Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies.  And there lies the conundrum.  An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians.  A crime was committed, but “on what land?  Was it tribal land?  Fee land?  White property?  State?  We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”

It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately.  He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it.  In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.

Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge.  He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused.  If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.

The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel.  Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed withStar WarsStar Trek, and girls.  The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other.  Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else.  Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal.  In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.

Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult viewpoint, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult.  Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence and stole his childhood.  The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man.  The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer.  He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.

The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man.  Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered.  Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word.  That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling– to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places.  Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.

The Round House is now available in paperback with a new and arresting cover.  Winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction, Erdrich’s story is definitely worthy of a read.

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May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes (Penguin Books; 496 pages; $16).

17707741If your family is anything like the Silvers in A.M. Homes’ black comedy May We Be Forgiven, you’re glad the holidays are over.  Homes is fierce and fearless in her depiction of a Twenty-First century family in crisis.  She knows just how to blend satire with realism, just how to mix tragedy with comedy, and just how to make her pages sizzle.

Homes’ characters are deeply flawed people, yet they are nothing but real.  Harold Silver, the novel’s main character, cannot help but be jealous of his little brother, George.  While Harold is a Richard Nixon scholar and historian, his brother is a powerful and wealthy television executive with a beautiful wife, two children, and a gorgeous home.   What Harold doesn’t envy about George is his violent temper.

The dominoes fall one by one when George gets into a car accident, killing a mother and father and injuring and orphaning their young son.  If that were not enough for one week, George snaps when he comes home to find his wife in bed with Harold.  He grabs the bedside lamp and hits her over the head with it.  These are not spoilers.  They happen within the novel’s first fifteen pages.

The story is not about these events anyway: rather, May We Be Forgiven is about how Harold seeks atonement for his part in the tragedy.  He blames himself.  If he had not been having an affair with his sister-in-law, then perhaps he could have averted catastrophe.  Harold becomes the guardian of his brother’s children, Nate and Ashley.  He also feels responsible for the orphaned boy.  As Harold assumes a new life so different from the one he had before, he seeks absolution.

Although Homes’ characters are completely unlikeable and unrelatable, they are strangely fascinating.  Harold is Homes’ most well-developed character.  When he is asked to edit a series of fictional stories written by Nixon, Harold jumps at this opportunity.  He sees Nixon as a father figure.  As Harold tries to atone for his own misdeeds, he seeks to assuage history’s view of the president.  It makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I challenge you to stop reading this story.  Once you start, you cannot stop.  Homes’ pacing is quick.  Her punches are like those of a boxer’s.  Surprises permeate on every page.

Sometimes, though, it is just too much.  It is as if Homes tries to one-up herself on every page, producing an over-abundance of shocking scenes with little or no segue between them.  Reading Homes’ novel can be like running a marathon, leaving you gasping for breath.  Homes, in certain instances, goes too far, most notably when Harold instructs his niece on how to use a tampon.  Shock value is a tool that should not be overused, even when writing a black comedy.  A little can go a long way.

Homes is unapologetically irreverent in May We Be Forgiven.  That’s why this is not a book for everyone.  If you enjoy dark comedies, you will love this story.  If you are not a fan of black comedy, stay far away.

I reviewed this novel last year and it’s now available in paperback.  I absolutely love the new cover!

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In His Own Words: Chad Gayle, Author of Let It Be

let it be

Let It Be by Chad Gayle (Bracket Books; 220 pages; $12.95).

Today, I am very pleased and proud to feature an exciting new voice

in literature on my blog–Chad Gayle, author of Let It Be.

LET IT BE is a touching tale of loss, longing, and forgiveness that chronicles the breakup of a marriage, the destruction of a family, and the struggle to come together in the aftermath of what remains.  Searching for the love and happiness she feels she deserves, Michelle Jansen leaves her abusive, overbearing husband behind and takes her two kids to Amarillo, Texas, where she begins to learn how to stand on her own two feet, supporting herself and her children with the money she earns from a low-paying job as she becomes increasingly involved with a coworker who is an even bigger fan of the Beatles than she is.  But Michelle doesn’t realize that her ex-husband is willing to do whatever he can to destroy her new life. When Michelle is betrayed by her very own son, this already fractured family will be damaged in an almost unimaginable way. Can they find forgiveness in the midst of so much sorrow and guilt, or will love give them the strength that they need to let it be?  Part family saga, part coming of age tale, LET IT BE is a story intimately linked to the music of the Beatles, a debut novel filled with true-to-life characters who want nothing more than a second chance.

Chad Gayle is a photographer and writer who has written for literary journals, trade publications, and newspapers. Previously, Chad worked for Poetry Magazine in Chicago and taught English at several colleges including Texas A&M University. Born in Texas, Chad lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two children; Let It Be is his debut novel.

Here’s Chad, in his own words.

Sgt. Pepper’s, the Bee Gees, and the Making of an Unlikely Fan

let it be gayle    “There was magic packed into that twelve-inch disc, an uncanny, otherworldly kind of joy that revealed itself at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. I was ten years old when I heard it for the first time, and there was something miraculous in the fact that I could sit down and listen to it at all, this album that had been recorded by The Beatles, the rock and roll band that had disbanded the year I was born, because I was the child of tone-deaf parents who were only interested in the kind of vinyl that covered couch cushions and dining room chairs.

We lived on fallow farmland that was miles away from the nearest town, in a part of Texas that was sandy and saturated with country and western songs and accents weighed down by a heavy Southern twang, at a time when movies, magazines, and TV shows were our only links to the world that lay beyond the dirt road that ran in front of our house. In that place, and at that age, I was cut off not only from parts of the present but from large swaths of the past as well, so that anything that had happened even a decade before seemed like ancient history, a black and white version of what was real that had the dense grain of a photo preserved in a faded newspaper.

My parents didn’t care about the Top 40, but I craved music, and I swore allegiance early on to both Soul Train and American Bandstand. With a transistor radio that I’d inherited from my grandfather clipped to my belt, I sang along with the pop idols I’d already become attached to (Elton John; David Bowie), waited anxiously for one of my one-hit-wonders to get some airplay, and grooved along to R&B and rock and roll tunes whose lyrics were obscured by the tinny eight-ohm speaker they had to squeeze through. I listened to anything and everything, and there was only one kind of music I didn’t dig—Disco, that vapid, empty collection of cloned beats that seemed pointless to a kid like me—but it was Disco, tangentially, that would determine my lifelong musical affiliation, because it was Disco that drove that hirsute trio, the Bee Gees, to the top of the charts in the late Seventies and almost made them movie stars.

In 1978, fresh from their success with Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees co-starred with Peter Frampton in the world’s worst jukebox musical, MGM’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which borrowed songs from The Beatles’ albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road to tell the absurd story of a not-so-fabulous band’s rise to fame. Filled with cheesy, cheap special effects, amateurish acting, and renditions of classic songs that were either startlingly good (Aerosmith’s version of “Come Together,” for example) and gut-wrenchingly awful (Steve Martin’s interpretation of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), it was a film which appeared, even to a child, to be a joke that had gone all wrong. To say that it was just another one of Hollywood’s box office bombs was to give it credit it didn’t deserve: it was a gross error in judgment that should have stained the conscience of the movie mogul who had cobbled its crooked script together from song titles and lyrics that were never meant to be connected in any way.

My parents wouldn’t have paid to see it in a theater even if it had won a bevy of Oscars, but I happened to see it on television at my grandparents’ house the year after it was released. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anything about The Beatles; I barely knew who The Beatles were, and the songs in the movie seemed to come at me from out of nowhere, like comets that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. In spite of the fact that I rolled my eyes with everyone else at the scenes that made no sense, I realized, almost immediately, how inexplicably special the soundtrack was, and I wanted to watch the movie again when it was over, although I was almost too embarrassed by the pull the music had had on me to admit this out loud.

Luckily, I had an aunt who had lived briefly in Ohio and who had willingly—some people in our family would say defiantly—identified herself as a hippie in the Sixties. My aunt explained where the songs in the movie had come from, and she also tried to help me understand why The Beatles had been such a big deal before they broke up; when we began to talk about the songs in the movie that we liked (“Here Comes the Sun” was one of her favorites;  “With a Little Help from My Friends” was one of mine), she asked me whether I would like to hear these songs as they were meant to be heard, and she told me that she had a few of her original Beatles’ albums that I could borrow, if I wanted to.

This was the beginning of my musical education, and it started with Revolver, the bridge between softhearted ditties like “Love Me Do” and those psychedelic masterpieces, like “Strawberry Fields,” that would come later. For me, it was love at first listen, and I consumed that album, devouring it the same way that I’d devoured the sci-fi paperbacks by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov that I’d discovered at age nine. Although the context that had helped to build the record had been stripped away by the intervening years, I felt as if the melodies inscribed on it were meant for me, even if some of the lyrics were puzzling, occasionally so cryptic that they seemed to be written in a different language. This might explain why a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my short life, was a little less appealing to me than “Got to Get You Into My Life,” as I tended to bond more easily with the McCartney-leaning lyrics (I’d already been exposed to the major hits of Wings, after all). Nonetheless, I was hooked, and I needed to hear more; my aunt was kind enough to oblige me by letting me borrow a compilation that covered the early part of The Beatles career, and after I made a copy of that record on cassette tape, I listened to it until I was singing those tunes in my sleep.

I’d started this journey at the end of the summer, but there was a pause of several months when I had to be content with scanning what is now known as an Oldies station for the opportunity to pluck “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” or another Beatles-era ballad from the ether. Then, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the great leap that would make me a Beatles fan for life. We were visiting my grandparents when my aunt arrived with her own precious cargo: a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“It’s my favorite,” she said. “Don’t scratch it.”Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, so I listened to it for the first time by myself, while the rest of my family was watching a raucous game of football on the living room TV. I slipped the disc onto the turntable that was in the den and lowered the needle, letting it rest in the record’s outermost groove.

When Sgt. Pepper’s was finished playing, I had the feeling that it was like nothing I’d ever heard and everything I’d ever heard. It was an album that stood on its own, apart from all others, even though it was connected, in some significant way, to every rock and roll song that had come after it, as if it was a kind of blueprint for what great rock and roll should be. It was stunning, the whole of it, because its thirteen songs fit together perfectly, forming something greater than the sum of its parts.

I listened to it several times that day, and I knew, by the time I took it off the turntable and slipped it into its sleeve, that it was an album I would always be in love with, even though I realized, with a certain amount of confusion, that I couldn’t explain why this was so. Was I drawn to the sweeping arc of its production, the way its pieces fit together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle? Or had I fallen in love with its incredible melodies, those harmonies that complemented and mirrored each other like the movements of an intricate symphony? Maybe the characters who lived in Sgt. Pepper’s lyrics—the lonely singer Billy Shears; Rita, the unattainable meter maid; or Lucy, the album’s psychedelic muse—were exerting an inexorable hold over me, or perhaps I’d been exposed to it at the ideal time, having been primed, already, with the songs from that terrible film that shared its name. I wasn’t sure whether it was one of these things or all of them that made it seem so important, so special; I only knew that I had to get a copy of my own, as soon as possible, because I wanted to be able to listen to it over and over again.

Three more years would pass before I would get my wish. While I waited, I did listen to other kinds of music and was briefly infatuated with other rock and roll bands, but I was also scouring the airwaves on the weekends, ready to slap any Beatles song I could find onto a reel of used cassette tape, and I did get introduced to The Beatles’ White album and Abbey Road after a musical dry spell that spanned an entire school semester. By the time I was a teenager, I’d sampled most of the records The Beatles had released, and when I was finally able to listen to a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s that was mine and mine alone, I decided that their music was the only music I wanted to listen to, and I tortured my parents and the rest of my family by playing those thirteen songs on an endless loop spanning morning, noon, and night.

Why was I so obsessed with these sounds that had been produced decades before? It wasn’t that I identified with what The Beatles had stood for in the Sixties, although I occasionally pretended to be a “peace and love” acolyte in order to frighten my father, who was deeply conservative; part of it may have been a need that I had to be different, to set myself apart from the teens I knew who so desperately wanted to look like each other, and part of it was the simple pleasure that I took from listening to The Beatles, who seemed to represent the best of what music could be. But I think I was also fascinated, at a certain level, with what made their songs special, in the same way that I was fascinated with understanding how particular novels and short stories were put together—why one was successful when another one wasn’t—and I believed that I could figure out, intuitively, what made the Fab Four so fabulous by listening to their music and nothing else.

I did temper my fanaticism as I got older. It helped that the music that was being made in the present was improving; the age of the “hair bands” was coming to its inevitable end, and rock and roll wonders like U2 were now at the top of the charts, so there were some meaningful musical alternatives getting airplay on the radio and MTV. When I got to college, I was suddenly surrounded by people whose tastes in music were wildly different than mine, which helped to broaden my interests, but I also experienced a kind of letdown after I saw The Who and the Rolling Stones in concert, because I realized, viscerally, that The Beatles’ canon was as static as it could be—there was nothing new to add; there were no new discoveries to be made; and even the release of something like The Beatles Anthology would turn out to be a profound disappointment to someone like me, since I’d already been exposed to so many bootlegs and alternate versions of tracks like “Strawberry Fields.” I even went through a post-graduate period when I deliberately avoided listening to The Beatles because I was worried that I was wearing out their music, that I was turning their albums into background music, a kind of Muzak for my daily routine, and I wondered, during this time, whether I might have outgrown The Beatles, since most of my music budget was devoted by then to Indie Rock bands that I was finding through Pitchfork, NME, and alternative stations on the radio.

When I dug my Sgt. Pepper’s CD out of the stack of discs that had held it down during this long hiatus, I was afraid of what I might find—that my love for it might have been lost; that the album might have seemed so overarchingly important because I’d burned its thirteen tracks into my brain by listening to it a thousand times or more—but then the opening notes, those discordant sounds of an orchestra tuning up and getting ready to play, began to reverberate in my ears, and I felt that unbridled joy that I’d felt when I was ten. There was a difference, of course, because I was different, because there were so many seasons of my life that were linked to this record, so that when that final chord faded, leaving behind a silence that was vacuous, a sonic hole, my eyes suddenly filled with tears. I felt as if I’d just had a marvelous, unexpected reunion with a long lost friend, a reunion which demonstrated that the bond of friendship was more powerful than the distance that had come between us.

Today I can say, unabashedly, that I am still in love with the music The Beatles made. As strange as it is that a boy who was let_it_be_book_spine_tilt_3born to musically indifferent parents, who grew up in the scruffy backwoods of east Texas, who was cut off, in many respects, from the pop culture of the present and the past should become a lifelong fan of The Beatles because of the Bee Gees, the man that the boy became is thankful for that absurd twist in his life. His days have been brighter because of it, and he was lucky enough, twenty-five years after he’d discovered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to sow the songs he’d grown up with into something new, completing a novel that follows a family of four that’s fallen apart, a book that was inspired by the breakup of The Beatles and the final record they released. That novel, Let It Be, was finally published in 2013.

Sgt. Pepper’s remains my favorite album, in spite of the fact that I am constantly discovering new music that knocks me off my feet.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And neither would we.  Thanks, Chad, and good luck with the book!

Author Website

Photography by Chad Gayle

Excerpt from Let It Be

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Spotlight on The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

rosie project

I’m so excited about this novel and hope to begin reading it this weekend, after I finish Burial Rites. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much time to read and write as I used to now that I work full-time.  The Rosie Project is calling me, and I am so eager to get lost in this story.

About the Book:

Coming October 1 from Simon & Schuster

An international sensation, this hilarious, feel-good novel is narrated by an oddly charming and socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest: to find out if he is capable of true love.

Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don’s Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.

The Rosie Project is a moving and hilarious novel for anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of overwhelming challenges.

About the Author:

graemesimsion-post

Graeme Simsion, PhDwas the owner of a successful consulting business, who decided, at fifty, that he would become a writer.  The Rosie Project is his first book.

 

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

maids version

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).

No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone.  Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed.  The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind.  Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.

Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in ThMaid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel.  A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928.  The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers.  Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion.  Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed.  Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.

Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it.  Go on and tell it.”  Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words.  It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart.  He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.

Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression.  When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community.   Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of  an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered.  With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.

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