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.

 

 

 

 

Encyclopedia Johnson

 

By Liat Faver

My greatest regret in reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson was I felt rushed. I needed to finish the book in time to write about it, and in three weeks I drove through its 1402 pages like a mad woman. When Johnson himself informed me “if we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read” (747), I took it to heart. I found occasion to savor it, hovering over passages that stunned me with their intricate beauty and acuity. Rarely did this tome inspire ridicule; however, I was often dismayed with Boswell’s manner of crossing the same streets repeatedly. I realize he wants to paint an accurate portrait of a man he admires above all others. Yet I wonder if it is necessary to take us through so many of Johnson’s daily events with so thoroughly fine-toothed a comb.

It is easy to see the objectionable side of Dr. Johnson, his self-importance, argumentativeness, and the annoying quality of being correct most of the time. But we warm to him when we see “his brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose . . . a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers” (280). Here we find the old curmudgeon in his rumpled and unadorned simplicity, loveable and mortal.

Our fascination with Johnson begins when we read that he once beat his school mistress. This is offered as an example of “that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him” (29). We are intrigued by his prodigious powers of recall when his mother insists that he memorize and recite lessons in a prayer-book, and he does so in stunningly short order. We then read that he stepped on and killed a duckling when he was three-years-old, and composed a beautiful, if remorseless epitaph. When we are told the duckling story isn’t true, we are informed, in a footnote, according to Miss Seward, the value in this fable and other childhood tales that can’t be proven, is in “the seeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character” (31). Thus, we are introduced early to Johnson’s tendencies toward inflexibility and supremacy, and “aversion to regular life” (47).

Numerous letters to relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances often repeat themselves, and I wondered why Boswell included so many. Eventually I came to appreciate them as evidence of the frequency of written communication in Johnson’s era. They also convey emotion and humor, and elucidate the elaborate turns-of-phrase common to the eighteenth century. In a beautiful missive to Joseph Baretti, Johnson expresses affection, “’I would have you happy wherever you are: yet I would have you wish to return to England . . . You may find among us what you will leave behind, soft smiles and easy sonnets’” (257).  The letters also evince historical dealings more colorfully than simple narrative.

I disagree with Johnson’s belief that “’women have all the liberty they should wish to have. We have all the labour and the danger, and the women all the advantage . . . If we require more perfection from women than from ourselves, it is doing them honour’” (944). And he over-simplifies grief and its longevity, saying, “’In time the vacuity is filled with something else; or, sometimes the vacuity closes up of itself’” (714). He seems heartless in his regard for children when he reveals that he “’should not have had much fondness for a child of my own’” (737). Yet he suffers considerably after his wife’s death, and exhibits great affinity toward his step-daughter, and Boswell’s children, and in one of his many defenses of Johnson, Boswell tells us “man is, in general, made up of contradictory qualities” (1399).

As an observation of historic and political events, Life gives an insider’s account of the time it occupies. We hear of the American struggle for independence, controversies over slavery, public execution, etiquette in the classroom, and more. Discussions between Johnson and his cohorts traverse many themes, from wine consumption, to Parliamentary procedure. When Johnson falls ill, we learn of the dropsy, blood-letting, and the application of squills.

Boswell’s devotion to Johnson is painstaking and affectionate. We see his “strange and somewhat uncouth” appearance, his “convulsive cramps” and “slovenly mode of dress.” It is touching to watch him walk with “the struggling gait of one in fetters” (1398). Johnson’s voice may still be heard in the pages of Boswell’s biography, a man with the “power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew” (1400). And we can’t help but listen.

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1980. Print.