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 himself 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.
McBride 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!