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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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North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson

North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson (Zondervan; 255 pages; $16.99).

north of hope

            Shannon Huffman Polson’s sobering yet sentimental memoir North of Hope is an extraordinary voyage of self-discovery for the author.  On June 25, 2005, the writer’s father and stepmother were declared dead after a bear attacked them in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  A wave of grief and anger enveloped Polson.

Each day, she “came home from work and stretched out on the couch, flattened like roadkill.” Polson eloquently illustrates the deep sorrow she felt; her misery is palpable.

The memoirist envied “cultures that have mourning traditions,” those who wear black or who tear their clothing.  “Why had our culture done away with all that?” she asked.  “To spare the majority the discomfort that each of us must one day face?  And by doing so robbing every one of us of the space to grieve and neutering society’s ability to mourn with the bereaved, our chance to appreciate life more for knowing death?”  Polson felt cheated.  It occurred to her “that grief is something imposed, but that grieving is something that must be learned and, like anything of consequence, would reveal its realities slowly, over a lifetime.”

But Polson does not have a lifetime; she must grapple with her anguish somehow so she can “make it through the shadowed valley and someday come out the other side.”

One year after the horrible tragedy, Polson and two companions, one of whom is her adopted brother, set off on a daring expedition to trace their father and stepmother’s route.  The Arctic was a place her dad loved, a magical place that “worked its way under his skin” and “became a part of him.”  Polson embarks on the expedition to “find” her father, “to know him,” and to “glimpse some of the magic” he and his wife had experienced on their trip.

Polson writes, “Throughout humankind’s long history, the idea of journey has carried with it expectations of adventure, of wildlife, of challenge, of conquest.”  As the writer and those who accompany her undertake this arduous and dangerous Arctic journey, we go along with them.  Polson ably navigates her narrative with flashbacks and incredible descriptions of Alaska’s wildlife.  Their adventure is both beautiful and perilous, especially when the group spots a pair of grizzlies.  The bears fill Polson with wonder, but they also repulse her as she thinks what one did to her family.

By turns sobering and inspirational, North of Hope is a meditation on grief and family and a daughter’s love letter to her deceased father.  Polson’s memoir is also a quiet yet powerful treatise on environmental changes and the effects of global warming and development in the Arctic.  If you enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, then you will love North of Hope.  Polson does for Alaska’s Arctic what Strayed did for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Although Polson structures her account around the Requiem Mass, North of Hope is rousing, as these funeral hymns lead her to a river and help her find her way forward.

Shannon Huffman Polson

Shannon Huffman Polson

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Book Review: The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

 

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books; 326 pages; $26).

 

            When author and former bookseller Kim Fay was a little girl, she became fascinated with Southeast Asia.  Her grandfather played a significant role in her growing obsession.  He was a sailor in the Orient in the 1930s and told Fay stories about his life.  Together, they would study photographs from that era; Fay was entranced.

 

After graduating from college, Fay traveled to Asia for the first time and promptly fell in love.  Everything about the region heightened her senses and made her feel alive.  Later, she moved to Vietnam and learned of a French couple, Andre and Clara Malraux, who looted a Cambodian temple in the 1920s to raise funds for the Communists.  Just like that, Fay had an idea for a story.  Thus, The Map of Lost Memories was born.

 

Part adventure (think Indiana Jones, but with a female lead), part quest, part mystery, The Map of Lost Memories is passionate, fast-paced, absorbing, and full of plot twists.  The lush, green vegetation of Cambodia and the rhythms, habits, and culture of the country come to life.  This reviewer felt like she had been transported into the story herself.

 

Like Fay, Irene Blum grew up on stories of Southeast Asia.  Her mother, in fact, was kidnapped in Manila when she was pregnant with Irene.  She died when Irene was little.  After her death, it was just Irene, her father, and the mysterious Mr. Simms, a wealthy friend of the family.

 

In 1925, Irene is devastated when she is passed over for a job she has dreamt of for a long time: that of curator at the Brooke Museum in Seattle.  The museum has been part of Irene for as long as she can remember.  Her father worked there as janitor until his recent death.  The institution has earned a prestigious reputation in art and archaeological circles, but only because of Irene’s hard work and fastidiousness in acquiring priceless artifacts, many of which were illegally obtained.  She is passed over, though, in favor of a man, despite all she has done for the museum.

 

Understandably, Irene quits in a fury.  Mr. Simms offers Irene the adventure of a lifetime instead.  He gives her a rare map that supposedly leads to a set of copper scrolls narrating the history of the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia.  This history was thought to be lost.  Irene cannot resist, especially when she reads the 1825 journal of an American preacher who was part of an expedition that first found the scrolls.

 

Irene sets off on her journey.  I can just hear the Indiana Jones music.  I can see the map overlaid on the screen showing movie watchers exactly where Dr. Jones was traveling to next.

 

For Irene, the journey will not be easy.  Then again, no quest is ever easy.  Fay knows just the right obstacles to put in Irene’s way.  Everyone who comes to Southeast Asia, Irene is told, “has something to hide.”  What an apt phrase.  Irene herself plans on stealing the scrolls and bringing them back to the United States and back to Mr. Simms.  Discovering the lost history of the Khmer will finally mean Irene is “someone” in art and archaeological circles.  Museums will beg her to be their curators, Irene thinks.  Fay paints Irene as calculating and driven, qualities she would be expected to have after being passed over for the coveted curator spot.  It quickly becomes apparent that Irene will do anything, anything, to get her hands on those scrolls.

 

Yet, Irene cannot accomplish this gargantuan task on her own.  She needs help.  Fay introduces two minor, yet very important, characters into the story.  The first is a renowned temple robber and Communist, much like the real Clara Malraux, named Simone.  The second is Marc, an elusive Shanghai nightclub owner who deals in information.  Like Irene, these two also have “something to hide.”

 

The Map of Lost Memories is not the typical “Westerner in the Orient” type of story.  Most of those tales featured a Western man as the protagonist.  Fay gives us a story in which a Western woman travels to the Orient, a strong American female who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it.  One of the helper characters is also a woman, a female who makes a lot of men quake in their boots.

 

Colonialism is a recurrent theme in The Map of Lost Memories.  Simone believes a communist revolution is necessary in Cambodia.  Only then, can the Cambodians govern themselves and restore their pride.  Of course, in the early 1970s, communism and revolution in the form of the Khmer Rouge hit Cambodia hard.  Countless lives were lost.  Horrible atrocities were committed.  Interestingly, Irene seems to think the Cambodians unworthy of the scrolls, ignorant of their history.  Irene, though, cannot be faulted.  She is a product of her time, an era when colonialism still flourished in this region.

 

Perhaps Clothilde, Mr. Simms’ Cambodian servant, says it best: “Idealists!  You’re certain you know what’s best for the natives.  You think there’s nothing more romantic than living in a grass shack.  Try living in one during monsoon season.”  Simone, thinking herself above reproach since she was born in Cambodia, too, counters: “This is my country as much as it is yours.  I know what the Cambodians want.”  Clothilde points out that Simone was “born into the privilege of French citizenship.”  The scrolls contain history.  They are an important account of a lost civilization.  Irene wants them for her own purposes; Simone wants them for the communists.

 

Don’t the Cambodians have the right to own their own history?  Irene will have to answer this question for herself.  She will have to decide what is most important to her.

 

The Map of Lost Memories is an engrossing debut by a talented novelist.  Fay’s heart and soul is within these pages.  Filled with adventure, danger, and even some romance, The Map of Lost Memories takes readers on a journey of epic proportions.  I’ve never physically been to Cambodia, but, reading Fay’s story, I became an armchair traveler to a land very far away.

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