I read McBride’s Color of Water and Song Yet Sung many years ago and really liked them, so I went into this book expecting his same serious tone and mood. Thus, it took awhile to realize how incredibly different this book would be. But once I settled in to its dark humor, I loved it. Coincidentally, I had just watched Wes Anderson’s Django Unchained and it felt so similar in style, it’s hard to believe they’re unrelated. Just as in Django, The Good Lord Bird takes the very serious and turns it into the very funny. This is a story about the famous abolitionist John Brown (whom, I’m embarrassed to admit I knew almost nothing about) and Henry, a young boy that Brown calls Little Onion because he mistakes him for a girl (and who remains dressed as a girl to stay alive). Based on the little research I did, the story takes a number of historically accurate events and people, most notably the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, and fictionalizes them as well as infusing them with imagination, parable, and folktale. In numerous places, John Brown seems super-human, a type of God figure who can walk and fight without food or sleep and who can appear and disappear seemingly like magic. Henry narrates the story in his 1850’s slave-child dialect, often from his observer’s point of view but sometimes relying on what he heard or was told. Through him/her, we see super-hero John Brown antics as well as the cruelties of slave life. And sliding in and out of the story are little bits of universal truth about human behavior and emotions. At one point, Henry tells us about Pie, a light-skinned slave working as a whore doing whatever she can to try to get out. When Pie turns against other slaves, Henry says, “I didn’t blame her…Every colored did what they had to do to make it. But the web of slavery is sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it” (187). We get lots of insights like this, and since they’re told through the eyes of a child, they stand out even more than the might through the wisdom of an adult.
Sometimes I got a little confused about events and time, but that is at least in part because I knew too little of the historical events and in part because of the infusion of folktale, mythical qualities which left me wondering what actually happened in the story vs. what they may have wanted to happen. This is a unique and very good read. (historical fiction)