Tag Archives: slavery

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!


Leave a comment

Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, My Favorite Books

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading

Book Review: Wash by Margaret Wrinkle


Wash by Margaret Wrinkle (Atlantic Monthly Press; 384 pages; $25).

            Two singular individuals, Richardson and Wash, bookend Margaret Wrinkle’s wisely assured debut, Wash.  Wrinkle, an Alabama native, uses Richardson and Wash to explore the inherent contradictions of slavery and freedom.  Although Richardson is white and Wash is black, the two men are both bound: Richardson by convention and Wash by the color of his skin.  Wash may be fiction, but Wrinkle writes this tale so credibly and accurately that the Old Southwest, with all its mayhem and turmoil, comes alive under her skilled hands.

Richardson had fought for freedom from tyranny in the Revolutionary War and had served his fledgling country in the War of 1812.  His father was an indentured servant.  During his last stint as a soldier, Richardson was captured by the British and chained as a prisoner of war.  His brief confinement, for him, was akin to being enslaved; not surprisingly, he did not like it very much.

By 1823, Richardson had settled in Tennessee and decided there was no more profit to be made in cotton.  Instead, he believed, the real money was in the procreation of slaves.  The United States government had banned slave importation from Africa in 1808; thus, the buying and selling of “countryborn,” or American-born slaves, was in high demand.

For Richardson, it’s pretty simple, really—he wants to make money.  He comes up with the idea to loan out his slave, Wash, to be a kind of “stud” to his neighbors.   The other masters line up to make appointments with Wash.  Every weekend, Wash visits certain female slaves and lies with them.  A slave midwife, Pallas, accompanies him to record their names and any resulting pregnancies and/or births.

“Wash” is short for Washington, a name Richardson bestowed on him at birth, a very common practice at the time.  As Wrinkle writes, Wash was the “first negro born to” Richardson, and he “wanted a name with some weight to it.”

When Wash does his duty, he travels deep inside himself, a technique he learned from his shamanistic West African mother.  Wash does not enjoy his position, even when it gives him opportunities not given to other slaves.  Wash would rather be with Pallas.

As the years pass, many children are born from Wash and the slave women.  Richardson gets a cut of exactly $200 for each child that is born.  Wash sees the irony.  Richardson gets “more than he bargained for” when Wash’s face and his ways begin “to crop up on most places round here. “  Richardson gave Wash “a big man’s name,” a name that Wash lives up to as he makes his “own country.”

Despite the money Richardson rakes in, he finds it difficult to sleep most nights.  He and other slaveholders like him worry that their slaves, who increasingly outnumber whites, will slaughter them in their beds as they sleep, just as Denmark Vesey planned to do in Charleston in 1822.  This fear was truly palpable for white masters.

Ironically, as whites fought in the revolution, taking up arms against their oppressors, their black slaves emulated their owners’ behavior time and again.  Most often, slaves resisted by running away, refusing to work, breaking tools, poisoning food, stealing animals, and many other minor rebellious acts.

Wrinkle truly shows just how “peculiar” the “peculiar institution” of slavery was in Wash when Richardson visits Wash at night to talk to him in the barn, Wash’s preferred place of rest.

A veteran of two wars, Richardson knows he himself fought for freedom from a tyrannical power.  He understands that holding men in bondage is antithetical to revolutionary ideals, but he is only one person and cannot abolish racial slavery.

Listening to Richardson at night, Wash entertains the thought of killing his master.  But Wash knows such an idea is futile and would mean his own death sentence.  So he listens to Richardson’s rationalizations and confessions, but sometimes Wash retreats deep inside.

Richardson does not like the idea of racial slavery, but he is shrewd enough to know that black servitude is too deeply entrenched socially, politically, culturally, psychologically, and economically.  Both Richardson and Wash are thus bound.

They are not the only ones.  Richardson’s daughter, Livia, highly intelligent, is bound by her gender.  William, Richardson’s son, seems to be the only character strong enough to strain his bonds as he marries a woman who is part African American.

Wrinkle provides the reader windows into the lives and workings of a motley crew of people in Wash, making the whole story richer and more satisfying.  Wrinkle provides fascinating insights into her characters and into the Old Southwestern frontier.  Wash is an intriguing character-driven story woven with history and African cultural traditions.  Wrinkle shows slaves and slave owners were constrained, bound together, despite the revolution.  Readers will learn more about the paradox of freedom and slavery in Wash than in any history book because Wrinkle brings it all to life so eloquently and masterfully.

Margaret Wrinkle

Margaret Wrinkle


Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).


            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author


Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

Spotlight on The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Two remarkable women, separated by more than a century, whose lives unexpectedly intertwine…



2004: Lina Sparrow, the daughter of an artist, is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

1852: Josephine is a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm–an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell, whose paintings will become the subject of speculation and controversy among future collectors.

Lina’s search to find a plaintiff for her case will introduce her to the story of Josephine.  Was she the real talent behind her mistress’s now-famous portraits?  It is a question that will take Lina from the corridors of a modern corporate law firm to the sleek galleries of the New York City art world to the crumbling remains of an old plantation house.  Along the way, Lina will unearth long-buried truths about Josephine and about herself…and just maybe achieve long-overdue justice.

Tara Conklin’s brilliant debut novel, The House Girl, will be released February 12.  Conklin captivated me with this tale of two strong, determined women.  I love this story and will be interviewing Conklin.  Book clubs will go crazy for this novel.  The House Girl is going to be bigger than Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

The Author

The Author

I am so proud to spotlight the book on my blog and I highly recommend this one!  It’s already getting a lot of well-deserved buzz.


Filed under books, fiction, literary fiction

Spotlight on May the Road Rise up to Meet You by Peter Troy

After much deliberation, I am about to start Peter Troy’s historical epic May the Road Rise up to Meet You.

Goodreads calls it: “An engrossing, epic American drama told from four distinct perspectives, spanning the first major wave of Irish immigration to New York through the end of the Civil War.”

“Four unique voices; two parallel love stories; one sweeping novel rich in the history of nineteenth-century America. This remarkable debut draws from the great themes of literature—famine, war, love, and family—as it introduces four unforgettable characters. Ethan McOwen is an Irish immigrant whose endurance is tested in Brooklyn and the Five Points at the height of its urban destitution; he is among the first to join the famed Irish Brigade and becomes a celebrated war photographer. Marcella, a society girl from Spain, defies her father to become a passionate abolitionist. Mary and Micah are slaves of varying circumstances, who form an instant connection and embark on a tumultuous path to freedom.

All four lives unfold in two beautiful love stories, which eventually collide. Written in gorgeous language that subtly captures the diverse backgrounds of the characters, and interspersed with letters, journals, and dreams, this unforgettable story, rendered in cinematic detail, is about having faith in life’s great meaning amidst its various tangles.”


Filed under books, fiction, history

Book Review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Harper; 384 pages; $25.99).

            In 2004, African-American author Attica Locke and her husband attended the wedding of an interracial couple at Oak Alley Plantation.  Located in Vacherie, Louisiana, about fifty miles from New Orleans, the beautiful antebellum mansion provided the basis for the fictional “Twelve Oaks” in Gone with the Wind.  Locke and other wedding guests were bused in from New Orleans.  It wasn’t the ride, though, that made Locke uncomfortable.

            “You’re driving through rural, working-class Louisiana poverty,” she told NPR, “and all of a sudden, along the Mississippi, this incredibly majestic house, these beautiful grounds with these arching oak trees, just kind of rises up.  And I felt this tear inside — there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

            Locke could not decide if having an interracial wedding on this plantation was an act of healing or if they were stomping on history.  She was so emotional she burst into tears.  The writer was certain the event was a metaphor “for where we are as a country, where we’re kind of caught between where we are and where we’re going.”

            Antebellum mansions like Oak Alley dot the Mississippi River Delta landscape of Louisiana and Mississippi.  Women in period dresses greet visitors at the door and guide them on a tour of the house and grounds.  Guests may imbibe in a little mint julep.  Visitors may even see a re-enactment or two.  Slave owners and slaves alike lament the coming of the Yankees.  The “happy darkies” profess their undying love and devotion to their masters.  In these plantations, the myth of “moonlight and magnolias,” long dispelled by historians, still prevails.

            Years later, when Barack Obama was elected President, the feeling she felt at Oak Alley came back to Locke.  The election “changed everything she had been taught about race.” 

This is the premise behind her latest mystery The Cutting Season, this reviewer’s second favorite mystery of the year (behind Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl).

            Swiftly-paced and compellingly readable, The Cutting Season features the thrilling tale of a double murder, centuries apart yet curiously related.  Locke’s whodunit takes the reader on a series of twists and turns.  The plot is unpredictable but always convincing. 

            Locke’s best feature is her ability to link characters to setting.  The story’s main protagonist, Caren, is the manager of fictional “Belle Vie” (“Beautiful Life”) Plantation.  Caren’s ties to Belle Vie are deep: her mother was the cook.  Caren grew up on this plantation.  In fact, she is the “great-great-great-granddaughter of slaves,” slaves who lived and worked at Belle Vie.    

            After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the home of Caren and her daughter, Morgan, they sought refuge at Belle Vie.  They have always felt safe here, among the re-enactors and others who work there.  They are a family.

            Their sense of security vanishes when the body of a cane worker from neighboring Groveland Corporation is discovered on plantation property.  She was murdered.  The killing may be related to the disappearance of Caren’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jason.

            Jason was brought to Belle Vie as a child.  Caren’s mother said that Jason “was a man to be proud of, slave or no slave.”  Jason was “a man who had lived with his head up and his back straight, a man who had lived a life of peace and fidelity…until he went mysteriously missing sometime after the Civil War.”  What happened to Jason was a mystery.  “Some said he had tired of cutting cane and walked out of the fields after the war, leaving a wife and child.  Some said he had problems with drink and women and that’s why he ran.  And still others, like Caren’s mother, thought he had likely met trouble here on the plantation; that he’d died at Belle Vie, and his soul never left the grounds.”  Jason’s ghost was even thought to haunt the slave quarters.

            Caren fears that she and her child may be the killer’s next targets.  Everyone is on edge; no one is safe.  No one can be trusted, not even old friends.  When it is clear the police have the wrong man, Caren must undertake her own investigation, no matter the cost. 

            In addition to the story’s main plot, the double murders, Locke introduces several interesting sub-plots.  Locke illustrates the plight of Hispanic cane workers and shows how powerless and scared they are when facing large companies, the government, and police.  An old romance between Caren and Eric, Morgan’s father, rekindles,  just when he is set to marry someone else.  Donovan, a re-enactor on the plantation, sets out to make a movie in which Jason is a central figure.

            The Cutting Season barely let this reviewer catch her breath.  I was so caught up in the action and mystery that I could not tear myself away from its pages.  The Cutting Season recalls the color and current of the muddy, meandering Mississippi River.  The story is swift; the plot is strong; the characters are murky; and the setting is shadowy. 

            The next time you find yourself near New Orleans or Baton Rouge, take a trip to the real Belle Vie– Oak Alley–the antebellum mansion that so moved Attica Locke. 





Filed under book review, books, fiction, history, mystery