‘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

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

By Piya Sinha-RoyLOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marvel Entertainment's chief emeritus Stan Lee may be in his ninth decade, but it hasn't stopped him from adding…

National

Islamic State says beheads U.S. journalist, holds another

Islamic State insurgents released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.

Local

VIDEO: NYPD seeks shooter in East New York…

Cops are on the lookout for an unknown shooter who aimed and missed hitting a man on a bicycle, instead nearly striking a nearby officer in East New York.

Local

NYS state forces thrift shops comply with ban…

Nine New York City thrift shops were reprimanded by the state attorney general for selling children's clothes with drawstrings around the neck and waist.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 11,…

Caleb's not a ghost. Spencer might still be an attempted murderer. And Hanna's going to die next week. In other words, we actually got some…

Movies

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

Marvel Entertainment's Stan Lee is adding outposts to his creative empire to interest a new generation of children in super heroes of all shapes and sizes.

Television

Mira Sorvino explores immortality on 'Intruders'

Mira Sorvino's new show "Intruders" centers around a secret society that achieves immortality by taking over the bodies of other people.

Television

5 things you need to know about new…

"Doctor Who" returns Saturday with a new star, Peter Capaldi. Here's some things to know about him (mainly his turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker).

MLB

Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

NFL

David Wilson returns to triple jump, sets sights…

Giants fans know David Wilson can jump. They are just more used to seeing him go for backflips, not distance.

Style

11 timeless gifts for registries or just because

Gifts to prove you're a style maven once and for all.

Parenting

How everyday moments can inspire kids' creativity

"The Artist's Way for Parents" author Julia Cameron gives advice on how parents and children can be creative together.

Tech

How to stay safe online

Stop worrying about keeping your online passwords safe, and start worrying about keeping your username a secret. Actually, worry about both. According to Shaun Murphy…

Tech

OpenTable now lets you pay your bill via…

The restaurant app OpenTable added the ability to pay your bill (and tip) with your phone, thus cutting back on a few dining annoyances.