WHEW. Where have I been? Around, but not quite present. I have officially begun teaching high school English, making my official declaration of insanity. The point is this: the hours are long and finding time to read has been painstakingly difficult. I can’t promise the plethora of reviews that I have descended upon the world in previous times any longer. Yet I can say this: When I finish a novel, I will review it. I can only hope that my students spend as much time reading these reviews of books that I hope they will one day read as they do watching videos of me singing Frozen songs from my days as a guitar instructor. I hope in vain.
I began reading James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird at some point in early August and finished on the 14th of September. Which just so happens to be the day this was written. Within 60 pages I was aware that not only was this novel good, but that it was spectacular in almost every way. Not since the conversation between father and daughter in Bleeding Edge have I read a book so utterly and devastatingly earnest. More to the fact, I’m not sure if I have read a novel that from beginning to end remains so worthwhile and driven by a pure mechanism of a desire to tell the truth. The novel succeeds in every manner, both in its moments of raw honesty to its copious use of humor.
The Good Lord Bird centers around a young slave named Henry Shackleford, who’s memoirs were found in the basement of a church and published in the prologue. These memoirs concern the escapades of the abolitionist John Brown before the dawn of the Civil War between the American north and south. Yet it is not so straightforward as it may sound, what gives the novel such charm and such devastating moral weight is not simply Henry’s own struggles with racism, but instead the fact that when John Brown frees the young boy, Henry’s father dies in the process. Henry, being of frail frame and atypical male form, is assumed to be a girl by Brown. Rather than correct him, Henry spends the entirety of the novel living as young black woman fighting alongside John Brown on the prairie. In a brilliant move by McBride, Henrietta becomes not only a strong voice in laying bare the role of racism in American culture, but sexism and transphobia as well.
Beyond the meditations and espousals of Henrietta, McBride’s entire cast is extremely well-voiced. My mind continues to want to evoke the work “devastating” to describe them. No character in this novel manages to be one-sided or thin. McBride has unbelievable talent for both dialogue and dialect, as each character reads as an individual rather than a side of a die rolled to see what comes next. Henrietta’s voice is unparalleled, however, only even remotely rivaled by John Brown, who becomes a well-intentioned form of what Martin Luther King Jr. asked of white people. King, in his letters, reflected on the idea that it was perhaps the white moderate who hurt the black man’s fight for equality more than anything else. The white moderate who always supported the idea behind the protest, but never the protest itself. John Brown becomes far from perfect in the novel. A white man with a golden heart who is doing his best to speak the truth and create a beloved community. Yet he finds himself guilty of not listening when he needs to most and assuming he knows what is best for those he is fighting for.
Within stream of consciousness of Henrietta, her conversations with John Brown flourish and take on new meaning. McBride somehow creates deep, meaningful and at times brutal observations of the world while maintaining the childlike innocence of Henrietta. The key to this is the southern dialect in which the the entire novel is observed. Southern accents and dialect have a negative connotation within the states for many people, but part of this is the paradoxical nature of the accent conveying both innocence and a deep history. The south cannot ignore its role in the long American history of oppression, yet it holds an accent that many find charming and simple. Within this accent, Henrietta’s observations are always fresh and welcome. The book sits in this place of feeling genuine and generously honest, making difficult critiques and points without breaking a sweat or moving outside of its simple form. McBride’s ability to turn complex racial or LGBT issues into southern colloquialisms is nothing short of astounding.
I am far from one to shy away from writing about what I disliked about a novel, but I don’t have an answer for that question. Perhaps the novel can feel long-winded at times, but in the end everything that McBride wrote down mattered. The novel, as heavy as its themes are, was refreshing. McBride is, as every great writer is, a teacher, guiding his readers to a place of knowing what it is to be human.
Recommended to: Anyone with a pulse. This novel is excellent and has mass appeal in its structure and easiness. In this climate of racial tension, especially with the protest of Colin Kaepernick making headlines daily, this book simply must be read.
Avoid as if promising to post a new book review every week and then failing to without warning: Absolutely no one should avoid reading this novel. You are doing yourself a tremendous disservice.