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When Black Lives Didn’t Matter
a review of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird
by Anesa Miller
If you’ve ever caught sight of something so rare and astounding it forced you to reconsider your entire approach to life, then you understand a key theme of James McBride’s award-winning novel, The Good Lord Bird. For the rest of us, accustomed to mundane sights that seldom challenge us to reform ourselves and uplift others, the book offers the next best thing: insight on a powerful personality and its meaning for the mortals chosen by fate to encounter it.
The literal “good lord bird” of the title is none other than the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the world’s largest and most beautiful wood-drilling birds. This feathered marvel is considered extinct today, but in the mid-19th Century, ivory-bills were still found in the Ozark forests—site of the Kansas Border Wars and setting for the early scenes of McBride’s story.
Any tale that opens here is likely to depict another colorful denizen of the region: John Brown, whose truth marches on in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” McBride makes the renegade abolitionist a symbolic corollary of the black, white, and scarlet bird that evoked the cry of “Good Lord!” from settlers who lay eyes on it. But the author does still more by showing us the legendary character through the eyes of a unique protagonist, whom I’ll discuss below.
Are people like John Brown extinct in our day and age—men possessed by such unrelenting conviction that hatred, loss, and imminent death cannot sway them from their cause? McBride seems to suggest that leaders of this stripe are certainly rare, which many would consider a blessing.
As a native of Kansas, I’ve been familiar with the towering figure of John Brown since at least sixth grade. By that age, most school kids have visited the statehouse in Topeka where Brown looms not just larger than life but twice the size of anyone else in murals on the capitol rotunda. The crazed glare in Brown’s eyes has inspired much comment in my conservative state. Back in 1940, the Kansas Council of Women protested that, “…the artist has emphasized the freaks in [our] history – the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure.”
Hounded by controversy over his murals, Kansas-born artist John Steuart Curry left his work unsigned and abandoned his home state altogether.
Art lovers everywhere rejoice that Curry’s work remains, albeit without his signature. But McBride’s novel affirms that the Council of Women was correct: John Brown certainly “did not follow legal procedure.” He killed his opponents, many in cold blood, and appropriated their property to his cause—i.e., stole—without a hint of remorse. His fury at the institution of slavery led his family into mortal danger and left the survivors unprovided for.
Hoping to steal arms for a universal slave rebellion, Brown seized the national arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. The poorly planned attack resulted in many deaths and decimated Brown’s followers. It achieved none of the stated objectives, although tensions soon escalated into civil war.
Many books, including other novels, have dealt with John Brown and the dire events he instigated. Two aspects set The Good Lord Bird apart: It is largely a comic novel, and it views history from a unique point of view. Mr. McBride’s race should not matter in our appreciation of its literary achievement, but I doubt that a white author could create such an off-beat, hilarious, and often absurd protagonist as Henry “the Onion” Shackleford.
“The Onion” (a nickname bestowed by Brown) gives us an outsider’s view par excellence. When this boy of twelve first encounters Brown, the abolitionist mistakes him for a girl because, “I wore a potato sack like most colored boys did in them days.” Thus our storyteller emerges as a transvestite slave child who embraces a female identity in order to avoid being pressed into service with the Pottawatomie Rifle Corps.
In these early scenes, the Onion’s “mental dependency” is such that he deems his “Massa…not a bad feller” and resists being liberated by the fanatical Brown. So do all other slaves at the opening skirmish. Like most growing children, especially those who’ve known privation, the Onion’s main concern is getting enough to eat. But Brown’s powers of persuasion are nothing if not dogged. Just as he gives up the potato sack when a dress is offered, the Onion gradually sheds his limited perspective. He comes to recognize the importance of burning issues of the day: equality, emancipation, self-determination.
At the same time, the Onion reveals Brown’s many shortcomings. “The Old Man” cannot fathom the distrust and reluctance he encounters among those he aims to free. The men who follow him face constant hunger because Brown would rather pray than bother to find provisions. His immersion in the cause entails little regard for reality: “He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”
More chilling are the Onion’s revelations of the backlash against slaves that Brown’s rebellion inspired. Few blacks willingly joined the attack on Harper’s Ferry, but many were hanged while more were sold “down the river” by terrified slaveholders. “White folks was in a state of panic that bordered on insanity,” the Onion observes. “The Colt Company ought to do something nice for Captain Brown’s family,” due to sales of thousands of weapons in the days after the Harpers Ferry attack.
Echoes of our time ring throughout this strangely beautiful historical novel. Amid the tragic events and profound emotion, there is much laughter but no hint of sentimentality. No stock answers. Instead, the tale conveys a rare and astonishing love for the other, for those who are different, for our neighbors and outsiders. As Brown says while awaiting execution, “Whatever you is, Onion…be it full.” Not the man’s most famous oration but one that brought tears to my eyes.
BIO: Anesa Miller is a recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council. She studied writing at Kenyon College and the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, The California Quarterly, the Southern Humanities Review, and others. Her debut novel, Our Orbit, was published by Booktrope of Seattle in June 2015.
Our Orbit Blurb: Nine-year-old Miriam Winslow never wore new clothes, never had a haircut, and believes that sinners must repent with dramatic displays of remorse, or harm will come to their loved ones. Now thrust into foster care, Miriam must adapt to a secular lifestyle while struggling to keep in touch with her past. Foster parents Rick and Deanne Fletcher quickly come to love their “new little girl.” Soon they meet the rest of Miriam’s family. Uncle Dan believes he was abducted by aliens. Sister Rachelle, just out of juvenile detention, harbors painful secrets. Brother Josh is outraged that the Fletchers disrespect Christian teachings. He vows to take Miriam out of their home and put a stop to meddling in his family’s way of life.
Now a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction, Our Orbit captures the tension between modernity and tradition in the Appalachian corner of southern Ohio. “A literary novel that reads at the pace of a thriller.”
Anesa Miller’s new novel, OUR ORBIT, is available at:
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/our-orbit-anesa-miller/1119914300?ean=9781620157237
and by order from most brick-and-mortar stores.
You can always find Anesa at:
GOOD LORD BIRD INFO
Author site: http://www.jamesmcbride.com