James McBride’s new novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is his second in arow to explore the issue of slavery in the years just prior to theCivil War. It was while researching his last book, “Song Yet Sung,”that he became fascinated with the story of the abolitionist JohnBrown, who led the violent slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
“I’d heard John Brown’s name many times in the past but never reallyquite knew who he was,” McBride says. “When I started to research him,I became fascinated with his story. The challenge was to find a way towrite about him that was interesting and funny.”
Given the dark subject matter of the time period and of Brown’s tragicfinal days, the humor is the most surprising element of “The Good LordBird.” The story is told through the eyes of Onion, a young slave boywho becomes a part of Brown’s crew under the mistaken assumption thathe’s a girl. Over the next few years, he crosses paths with luminaries
like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the latter depicted makingdrunken advances on the disguised Onion.
“My approach is to make fun of everybody,” McBride explains. “In reallife, I admire Frederick Douglass. He was a great man, but he wasflawed as well. The people who built this country weren’t gods. Theywere flawed people, and you often wonder if the women in their lives
had the chance to write the stories of these men, how their accountwould read.”
McBride himself was surprised at the opportunities for satire affordedby Onion’s disguise. “The business of identity – self identity, inneridentity – always drives the outer story,” he says. “I wanted Onion’sidentity issues to be strong enough to push him to freedom at the end
of the book. I really didn’t consider all of the factors that would gointo this character playing a girl at the outset; I just thought itwas funny. Then as the book evolved and he got into these situationswhere he had to pretend to be a girl, it thickened the plot and justbecame delicious.”
In the end, McBride came to admire his subject, despite the misguidedviolence of some of his actions. “I think John Brown was one of thegreatest Americans that ever set foot in this land,” he says. “JohnBrown was a man who represented an ideal and was willing to die for
it. He was way ahead of his time. I admire his sense of religion, hissense of purpose and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue ofhuman rights.” – Shaun Brady
A complex view
Onion’s experiences allow McBride to depict a complex view of slavery,one that in some ways is more comfortable than the hardships found inthe fight for freedom. “Slavery was a complicated web ofrelationships,” he explains. “In many ways, masters were as dependent
on their slaves as their slaves were upon them. Most slaves went tobed and got up in the morning dreaming of freedom, but that doesn’tmean a lot of them really knew what that word meant. It’s one thing towant to be free, but then after you’re free, what is there to be done?It’s like the election of Obama. A lot of us were saying ‘This isgreat,' and then the hard work of change began and suddenly yourealize how much work needs to be done.”