‘The Good Lord Bird’: a ‘delicious’ tale from a difficult history

James McBride Provided
James McBride
Provided

James McBride’s new novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is his second in a row to explore the issue of slavery in the years just prior to the Civil War. It was while researching his last book, “Song Yet Sung,” that he became fascinated with the story of the abolitionist John Brown, 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 really quite 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 to write about him that was interesting and funny.”

Given the dark subject matter of the time period and of Brown’s tragic final days, the humor is the most surprising element of “The Good Lord Bird.” The story is told through the eyes of Onion, a young slave boy who becomes a part of Brown’s crew under the mistaken assumption that he’s a girl. Over the next few years, he crosses paths with luminaries
like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the latter depicted making drunken advances on the disguised Onion.

“My approach is to make fun of everybody,” McBride explains. “In real life, I admire Frederick Douglass. He was a great man, but he was flawed as well. The people who built this country weren’t gods. They were flawed people, and you often wonder if the women in their lives
had the chance to write the stories of these men, how their account would read.”

McBride himself was surprised at the opportunities for satire afforded by Onion’s disguise. “The business of identity – self identity, inner identity – always drives the outer story,” he says. “I wanted Onion’s identity 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 go into this character playing a girl at the outset; I just thought it was funny. Then as the book evolved and he got into these situations where he had to pretend to be a girl, it thickened the plot and just became delicious.”

In the end, McBride came to admire his subject, despite the misguided violence of some of his actions. “I think John Brown was one of the greatest Americans that ever set foot in this land,” he says. “John Brown 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, his sense of purpose and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue of human 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 in the fight for freedom. “Slavery was a complicated web of relationships,” he explains. “In many ways, masters were as dependent
on their slaves as their slaves were upon them. Most slaves went to bed and got up in the morning dreaming of freedom, but that doesn’t mean a lot of them really knew what that word meant. It’s one thing to want 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 is great,’ and then the hard work of change began and suddenly you realize how much work needs to be done.”


News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Florida man charged with murdering son to play…

A Florida man annoyed that his 16-month-old crying son was preventing him from playing video games suffocated the toddler, police said on Friday.

International

Powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake rattles Mexico

A powerful earthquake struck Mexico Friday, shaking buildings and sending people running into the street, although there were no reports of major damage.

News

OMG! Exercise can make skin (and butt) look…

A moderate exercise regime can turn back time and actually reverse the skin's aging process, according to new research. The study showed that a minimum…

International

Jews in eastern Ukraine ordered to register, Kerry…

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned reports that Jews in eastern Ukraine had been ordered to register with the authorities "or suffer the consequences."

Entertainment

Whoopi Goldberg makes her debut as marijuana columnist

"It helps my head stop hurting, and with glaucoma your eyes ache, and she takes the ache out. It's wonderful," she said.

The Word

Kate Middleton made fun of Prince William's bald…

Kate Middleton and Prince William are in Sydney, Australia, right now, and it sounds like that brash Aussie sense of humor might be rubbing off.

The Word

Is Tom Cruise dating Laura Prepon?

"Mission: Impossible" star Cruise is said to be dating Laura Prepon, star of "Orange is the New Black."

Television

'Scandal' recap: Season 3, Episode 18, 'The Price…

Sally is Jesus, Olivia caused global warming, and Mellie's still drunk. Let's recap the Scandal finale. A church full of Washington insiders is about to…

NBA

Carmelo Anthony agonizing over Knicks future as season…

There’s still the cloud hanging over the franchise’s head as to the pending free-agent status of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony.

NFL

Jets host players with eye toward NFL Draft

The Jets hosted a number of NFL Draft hopefuls for workouts on Thursday, with an eye toward some under-the-radar players.

NFL

Chris Johnson: I wanted to go to 'a…

Now that Chris Johnson is a Jet, the team has to figure out if one of the most explosive players in the NFL over the last half decade has anything…

NHL

Rangers' speed versus Flyers' size makes interesting playoff…

Among the myriad aspects that will make this Metropolitan Division semifinal series fascinating will be the battle between the Rangers' speed and the Flyers' size,…

Tech

VIDEO: 'Vein-scanning' may become the future of paying

Designed to make transactions quicker and easier, the technology works by scanning the unique vein patterns in each person's palm.

Tech

#FollowFriday: 10 of the smartest Twitter accounts

Spending lots of time on Twitter? You might as well learn something. Here are some of the smartest accounts to follow.

Style

Light-up nail art syncs with phone

This Japanese technology syncs light-up nail art with your phone.

Wellbeing

Why is dance cardio taking off in NYC?

Instructors at some of the city's hottest classes explain why.