I’d like to think I have varied interests. Think being the keyword in that sentence. Because at the end of the day I sometimes realize exactly how connected my little literary world is. And then my world seems significantly smaller and much less varied.
I am not a person of many talents. It’s quite possible I am a person of no talent. I’m competent, capable, and functional. I’m good at many things. I’m great at none. So when it comes to authors like James McBride, I’m envious. He is a successful musician, screenwriter, and author. And he’s funny. I’d hate him if I didn’t love him. And how, to illustrate my ‘it’s a small world’ point, do I know James McBride? It was neither his wildly successful memoir ‘The Color of Water’, nor his collaborations with Spike Lee (Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer) that introduced me to his work. It’s his musical association with Stephen King, as both are members of the Rock Bottom Remainders*, that urged me to investigate his work. It should go without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that I’m incredibly grateful to have found another great author to read.
James McBride’s latest novel is a rare bird** and not just because it is named after a rare woodpecker. And by woodpecker, I do mean woodpecker***. ‘The Good Lord Bird’ is an irreverent homage to abolitionist John Brown’s journey to the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry, as told by 12-year-old Henry Shackleford. When Brown is visiting a tavern in Kansas Territory, things get quickly out of hand. Henry’s father is killed and Brown frees the young boy, but not before assuming he is a girl. Henry becomes Henrietta and Henrietta becomes Onion (for eating John Brown’s good luck onion, the man had about a million good luck charms). The novel tells of adventures and encounters, including their relationship with Frederick Douglass, that the old man and Onion face on their way to changing the course of American history.
‘The Good Lord Bird’ is a historically rich, inventive tale of race and gender identity. It’s also a comedy. It is the tale of a possibly unhinged zealot, a teenager assuming a new gender, prominent abolition figures, brutal slave owners, drunken rebels, a tattered band of followers, and even a few upstanding citizens****. There’s a whore house, an amorous orator, and a tragic, if expected, end for the man who was ‘a bit off his biscuit’. It’s clever, funny, and irreverent, but it’s not disrespectful. It offers a fresh perspective on a mysterious figure, one who is assumed to have either been a fanatic or a madman – and quite possibly both. In this story, he is a hero.
James McBride’s newest novel is beautiful and, for lack of a better word, feisty in unexpected ways. Through Henry’s ambivalent view and distinct voice, a fresh light is shed on a dark period in history. I like to read for pleasure. I also have the tendency to mock those who claim to only read important, canonical books, despite the fact that I read those books too – I’m just not snobbish about it. This is one of those rare books that will satisfy both parties. It is an excellent, important book that also happens to be fun to read. 4.5/5.
Historical novels are generally less fun for me to recommend food for. I’m a very modern eater. However, this novel leaves the possibilities wide open. On Frederick Douglass’ culinary preferences:
When he took meals, he took them alone at the big mahogany desk in his office. That man gobbled down more in one setting than I had seen thirty settlers chunk down in three weeks out in Kansas Territory: steak, potatoes, collard greens, yams, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, chicken, rabbit, pheasant, buck meat, cake, biscuits, rice, cheeses of all types, and kneaded bread; he washed it down with milk, curd, peach juice, cows’ milk, goats’ milk, cherry juice, orange juice, grape juice. Neither did he turn away from alcohol libations and drinks of all sorts, of which several types he kept on hand at the house: beer, lager, wine, seltzer, even bottled water from various springs out West. That man put a hurting on a kitchen.
I am recommending leek and potato soup to accompany this novel. It is one of my favorite soups and I can’t wait until it’s cold enough to eat it.
*If anyone can find me an affordable Rock Bottom Remainders T-Shirt, I will love you for life. Seriously. On a less serious note, apparently I can be bought.
**Sorry. To defend myself, the book is a rare bird – an unusual, comedic look at a decidedly unfunny topic and an exceedingly odd man.
***It’s specifically referencing the white-billed woodpecker. But of mildly related, slang-influenced interest: Did you know John Brown had 20 children?
****If Quentin Tarantino hadn’t already made Django Unchained, I’d suggest him as director for the film version of ‘The Good Lord Bird’ (and I’m not alone).
Full disclosure: I was given a review copy of this novel is exchange for my honest opinion. The novel’s release date in August 20, 2013.