Monday, November 30, 2015

531 (2015 #88). The Good Lord Bird

by James McBride,
read by Michael Boatman

This 2013 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction is sorta about abolitionist John Brown.  The main character, though, is Henry "Onion" Shackleford, who is a ten-year-old black slave in Kansas when the book opens in 1856.  His father is accidentally killed and Brown "frees" Henry, mistakenly thinking he is a girl, and nicknames Henry as "Onion" (because Henry eats Brown's lucky one).

Onion continues to pretend to be a girl over the next three years, in Kansas and in Virginia with Brown (including at the Harper's Ferry raid), and on his/her own living in a brothel in Missouri in between.

James McBride works in real historical events and people (such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom actually met or worked with Brown) into his novel.  Enough so that I was compelled, as I am with any historical fiction, to find out what was true and what was not.  Onion is totally fabricated.  There isn't a lot of action in Brown's life in 1857, so Onion's sojourn that year in Missouri (a slave state at the time) provides an opportunity for insights into slavery.

McBride freely admits the book is primarily satire, and the picture he paints of Douglass in particular is not pretty (although there is speculation that Douglass had a German mistress).  The book is too long and drags a bit in places (with the scenes of the Harper's Ferry raid being especially flat).  However, I listened to the audiobook, which was extremely enjoyable thanks to the vocal talents of reader Michael Boatman, who was especially good at making "The Old Man" Brown, as Onion calls him, sound right on the cusp between religious fanaticism and abolitionist zeal.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  An e-book for reference was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

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