James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.

Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.

Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).

Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).

Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)

Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.

The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.





Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus



Author interview-Shannon Huffman Polson, author of “North of Hope”

Several weeks ago, Shannon Huffman Polson’s book North of Hope was featured on Why The Writing Works. Today’s post is an interview Shannon kindly agreed to, taking time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions.

North of Hope

WTWW: Your memoir North of Hope A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is a very personal story through grief. How difficult was it to not only write this book, but then release it out into the world?

SHP:Writing memoir is a funny thing in that you may include some memories that are so intimate you may only have shared them with a spouse, but I think it’s this willingness to be vulnerable to write toward the truth of the work that is the heart of writing, what allows a book to connect to a more universal human experience. This connection is the whole purpose of writing a book. It’s also important to remember that a book has limitations; 250 pages is not the same as an experience or a life. One of the most difficult things is crafting the narrative, deciding what must be included and what (no matter how important it seems) must be left out in service to the story. I think it’s important for both writers and readers to remember the possibilities but also the limitations of a narrative.

WTWW: Your web address is A Border Life (dot) com and on your website your state you “write about the difficulties of navigating borders.” Why borders? What other borders do you hope to explore?

SHP: The idea of edges and borders has always held me. The idea of “a border life” comes from Thoreau (“with regard to nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays…”- Thoreau, Walking) When I first started writing seriously, one of the tensions I felt most strongly, and still do, was that of life in the city, where work has required I, and now my family, live most of our time, set against life in a more rural setting, the strengths and weaknesses of both. I think a third book might look at this more deeply. I am also aware of borders of life and death, of self and other, of women and men, as those that we are forced to live with every day. I love the idea of the ecotone as well, the border between ecosystems that is a transition area, a place where two ecosystems integrate. Borders are infrequently as hard and fast as they are drawn on maps or held in arguments, and I think this area on the edge, this requirement of integration, is where the possibilities for our own growth lie.
WTWW: You end your book with an afterword about the dangers the fragile ecosystem of the coastal arctic plain face from development. What do we stand to lose if this ecosystem is developed?

SHP: We would love one of our very last wild places, and that part of us that can hold a place as sacred. There is only a tiny percentage of the Alaskan coastline that is undeveloped, and it’s a tragedy that we can’t agree to protect it. Now, of course, the threats are much more complex, from the rapid changes occurring due to warming in the Arctic areas which changes this fragile landscape in unimaginable ways, both on land and in the sea where there is no longer sea ice (where even I experienced it in 2006.) This puts whole ecosystems and the animals and birds that rely on them at risk. What we don’t seem to see is that in our connection to wilderness, it puts us at risk too.

Wilderness is so much more than a place on the map; it is a place in our consciousness, a place that allows us to understand the fullness of potential and possibility, and love in all it’s terrible and beautiful forms. I am afraid of the way our culture seems to be losing the ability to see the sacred, in wilderness, in each other. Our connection to the wilderness, felt or not, is both body and soul. When we destroy the wilderness, we are destroying ourselves.
WTWW: Any other writing projects you’d like to discuss?

SHP: The book I’m working on now is exploring ideas that come from my experience as one of the first women to fly attack helicopters after the combat exclusion clause was lifted in 1993. I’m not yet clear what the key themes will be; certainly connection and aloneness, narrative inclusion and exclusion, and men and women, though I’m constantly surprised at what comes up as I do my work, so I’m not yet prepared to give a full answer about it, but it’s both terribly risky and exciting. Stay tuned!
WTWW:  What are your interests outside of writing?

SHP: I‘m an avid chorister, and sing with an incredible group in Seattle called Seattle Pro Musica. I love to hike, backpack, and ski— nordic, alpine and backcountry. I love spending time outside in Washington and Alaska, or anywhere, with my family, my husband and two happy active boys. That’s most of it!

WTWW:  Anything else you’d like to discuss?

SHP: Thank you for having me visit your blog community!

Thank you, Shannon!

Connect with Shannon:




If you wish to read more of her writing, Shannon also contributes to Image Journal’s Good Letters blog.



The Gift of Focused Power in First Person Point of View:

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

by Rhonda Browning White

            There’s a children’s game in which a sentence is passed via whisper from one child to another through the room until the last child repeats the sentence aloud. Of course, the sentence has changed. Point of view in a story works much like that whispered sentence: a story changes depending on who repeats it. Each of us—and each of our characters—has her own frame of reference, her own set of parameters, her own way of seeing the world in which we live. Thus, each of has a unique point of view.

Perhaps there is no better examination of a character’s point of view (POV) than to let that character tell the story as he sees it, as he lived it, through first-person viewpoint. Amy Tan tells the story of eight Chinese-American women (four mothers and four daughters) living in America, through each woman’s POV in The Joy Luck Club, and while this may seem a distracted and sprawling way to relate the story, instead readers are given deep and varied perspectives of what it means to be an American through the eyes of these women. Readers gain intimate insight into the workings of the mind of each woman, and we are intellectually involved in each narrator’s thoughts and actions, puzzling through her life as she lives it, ultimately piecing together the whole story from eight viewpoints.

A crucial element for telling a story through multiple first-person points of view is voice. Tan succeeds by layering the cadence of each character’s voice with the dialect and language of her time and birthplace. For example, when daughter Waverly Jong relates her mother’s anger at her for staying out too late and causing her to worry, she tells us, “Standing there waiting for my punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice. ‘We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us’ (100).” Here we see that Waverly is Americanized enough to speak and think in grammatically correct American English, but her mother still carries the rhythms and dialect of her Chinese culture.

Through first-person point of view, we experience the difference in thought and opinion of these two cultures—American and Chinese—and how the two sometimes clash, but other times mesh with such beauty as to provide striking clarity that would otherwise remain clouded without the perspective of multiple points of view. Character Ying-Ying St. Clair, a mother who suffered a mental break following a late-pregnancy miscarriage, expresses her numbness to the pain in first-person voice in a way that would be impossible were the story told by an omniscient narrator: “I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water” (67). Even though Ying-Ying is reporting her past, the experience is immediately convincing, because we feel her numbness to grief and pain through first-person point of view.

Through her use of first-person POV, Tan’s characters have the freedom to explore their thoughts, sometimes digressing, sometimes reflecting, but always coming back to the present moment, so that as readers, we experience the closeness of single consciousness with the character. We understand the character. We achieve new perspective. We are enlightened. There is no greater gift a writer can offer a reader.



Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. NY: Putnam, 1991. Print.


Why the repetition works

Why The Repetiton Works
by Cheryl Russell

One of the stories from The Best American Short Stories that I remember is Julie Otsuka‘s short story “Diem Perdidi,” a Latin phrase for “I have lost the day.” It is a phrase the narrator’s mother remembers from her high school Latin–a subject she was so proficient in she was awarded honors at her high school graduation. But now, the narrator’s mother is suffering from memory loss and by repeating the phrases “she remembers” and “she doesn’t remember,” Otsuka is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s grief as losing her mother a bit at a time.

Nearly every sentence in the story starts with one of two phrases: “she remembers” and “she does not remember.” If a sentence doesn’t start with one of these phrases, then it is probably written into the sentence. By using these phrases, Otsuka shows the cruelty of her mother’s disease, as well as it’s progression.

“She remembers” her fifth grade teacher, her mother killing the family’s chickens before this Japanese family was relocated to the desert, and her first love. “She does not remember” the names of those closest to her–her husband, the narrator–what she’s just done, such as pick a flower to put in her hair or eating lunch.

“She remembers” much of her past–in great detail–her father abandoning their family when she was young and her mother scattering salt in the corners of the house after his departure and the daughter who survived only moments after birth.

“She remembers” the names of the people at the grocery store where she currently shops, but “she does not remember” the names of her immediate family.

By repeated use of those two phrases–“she remembers” and “she does not remember,” Otsuka is able draw the reader into the narrator’s grief at her mother’s slow passing. While physically she remains in good shape, the essence of who she is, is fading away. “She remembers” and “she does not remember” serve to point out the slipping away of this woman, contrasting what is known to what is forgotten, and how what is own is continually slipping away, until “she does not remember” will become more frequent than “she remembers.”

The Best American Short Stories 2012
The Best American Short Stories 2012

Otsuka, Julie. “Diem Pardidi.” The Best American Short Stories 2012.” Ed. Tom Perrotta. Series ed. Heidi Pitlor. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 152-161. Print.

Voice Authenticity and Respectful Dialect in A Gathering of Old Men

by Rhonda Browning White

Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men relates the story of a white Cajun murdered by a black man in the Louisiana bayou during the late 1970’s. The entire story is narrated through the first-person point of view of fifteen different characters, each with his own chapter, but with some narrators sharing their viewpoint in more than one chapter. This first person point of view allows readers to develop some intimacy with each of these narrators and lends a sense of credibility to the story. I find it interesting, however, that none of the main characters (Beau Boutan, Candy Marshall, Mathu, Sheriff Mapes, and Charlie Biggs) have a point of view chapter. Perhaps Gaines wanted to give the impression of misjudgment—outsiders opining on a situation about which they understand little or none of the truth.

Gaines’s use of regional dialect and its conveyance from oral speech patterns into written word maintains each narrator’s different voice. Snookum’s narration in the first chapter easily expresses his childish diction, though he seldom spoke aloud: “Old Toddy with his snagged-teef self looked at me and grinned, ‘cause he thought Gram Mon had to hurt my feeling when she told me to sit back down. I checked on of my fist, but he knowed I couldn’t hit him, ‘cause he already had caught me and Minnie playing mama and papa in the weeds, and he told me I had a year when I couldn’t do him nothing no matter what he did me, and if I did he was go’n tell Gram Mon what he caught us doing” (7-8).

The dialect distinctively changes when Lou Dimes narrates his chapters: “I drove the thirty-five miles from Baton Rouge to Marshal in exactly thirty minutes. Why I didn’t have every highway patrolman in the state of Louisiana on my tail was just a miracle” (93). Without the reader being plainly told, we know Lou Dimes is older and better educated than Snookum by his narration voice.

Even though Gaines uses the Cajun-Creole-French-Louisiana regional dialect with a heavy hand, he allows his narrators to speak with full knowledge of their own experience. They never appear ignorant because of their colloquial voice patterns, just different. This is a subtle reminder to the reader not to pass judgment on these characters based on their speech patterns, but to listen to what they are saying beyond their mispronunciations.

Work Cited

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. Thorndike, ME: Thorndike, 1984. Print.

Confessional Voice–First Person Point of View in “The Joy Luck Club”

First person point of view, one of the strongest parts of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, gives the story a personal tone and draws the reader into the inner circles of two separate groups of women. The first group of women are native born Chinese and are the original members of the Joy Luck Club; their American born daughters comprise the second group. The first person point of view is the unseen counterpart to the role Jing-mei Woo has assumed. Jing-mei has taken her deceased mother’s “seat at the mah jong table” (Tan 19) in the Joy Luck Club with her mother’s friends, yet she is also a first generation Chinese, like the other daughters whose mothers are members of the Joy Luck Club.

Through Tan’s utilization of first person point of view, the reader learns intimate details about the characters.  The mothers, “are frightened” for they know they have daughters “unmindful of all the truths and hopes” (40) carried from China to the United States. The first person point of view allows these women to express their hopes to the unseen reader, hopes they’ve been unable to pass onto “daughters who grow impatient” (40) when the older women revert back to the language of their childhood or have difficulty expressing themselves in English.

Through the first person point of view, Suyuan Woo’s daughter Jing-mei relays stories about her deceased mother, starting with her mother’s “Kweilin story” (20), the tale of her mother’s first marriage and family back in China, at the time of the Japanese invasion. This story and point of view both opens and ends the novel—finishing off both stories. The reader alongside Jing-mei when she meets her long-lost half-sisters in Shanghai, as she watches the Polaroid picture of the three of them develop and her observation that “together we look like our mother” (288). Through first person point of view, the stories of Jing-mei and her mother converge and become one.

The point of view also shows the chasms that exist in the mother-daughter relationships. These Chinese women don’t know how to communicate their pasts with their American born daughters and as a result, the daughters have no idea what experiences have shaped their mothers. But by novel’s end, the first person narration’s confessional nature frees several of the mothers to close the communication gap and speak of their pasts.

By actively addressing the reader, the first person point of view works as a kind of confessional for the characters; the reader is a safe third party in which to work out their relationship issues. Once the issues are spoken about, the characters—especially the mothers—are free to take the next step in those troubled relationships by being more open about their pasts and the reveal aspects of their personalities they’ve kept hidden from their daughters for years.

Works Cited

            Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Penguin Books. 1989. Print.