Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
(Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Michael Boatman)

From Goodreads: "Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; 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 is 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, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War."

The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award and is on the current Rooster Tournament of Books shortlist. It was practically the rule that I was going to like it. But I'm such a rebel; I don't abide by rules. I forge my own path! I strike out in my own direction! No one can make my decisions for me!

So here's my own, personal, not ordained take on McBride's novel: super. I so dug the narrative voice, the main character, the thematic elements, the humor. Surely this was in part due to Michael Boatman's narration, which was all about Onion's voice. He was very much on this crazy journey with Onion, from Kansas to West Virginia, through battles and life in campgrounds and reconnaissance at Harpers Ferry, to the eve of the raid and beyond. Boatman is so good at translating McBride's tone and dialect that I wonder if I'd have enjoyed the book so much in print. (I did look at the sample online, and can see why it would be hard to jump into cold, but as an oral experience, the whole thing just runs along like a clear fast stream.)

John Brown comes across as crazy (like a fox) and super charismatic; no matter how often Onion talks about striking out on his own, he's as caught up in Brown's plans as the rest of them. Part of this is the combination of youth and the inclination to stick with the devil you know, but part is that Onion is proud to be John Brown's good luck charm. And I love the way McBride handles Brown's vast store of superstition and omens: they very much inform the text, but they don't dominate it. It's easy to just ascribe it all to Brown's craziness, but all along, and without Onion particularly noting it, those beliefs prove important.

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