James McBride’s lauded new novel sits squarely on some of the most emotionally fraught territory in America: the history of slavery and the role of race. But it’s also an adventure story filled with irreverent historical characters, outrageous language and laugh-out-loud moments.
The abolitionist movement wouldn’t seem to give rise to much hilarity. But McBride, author of three previous books about the nexus between black and white, has written a funny book about a serious subject in the hope of finding a new way to discuss race.
“We have to find ways to talk about our history that doesn’t punch people in the teeth. I’m glad to be alive now — I’m not sure this book would have been readily accepted a few years ago,” McBride said during a recent phone interview before his appearance at Miami Book Fair International.
The narrator of The Good Lord Bird is a prepubescent slave boy named Henry Shackleford who, in short order, is mistaken for a girl, accidentally liberated by fiery abolitionist John Brown and nicknamed “the Onion.” The Onion winds up in a series of galloping misadventures leading to the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry, a major catalyst for the Civil War.
The viewpoint of the boy is deliciously earthy, the observations about race impudent and the most vaunted figures of the anti-slavery movement come in for some rough treatment (Frederick Douglass is depicted as a womanizing pontificator, a “speeching parlor man”).
It’s risky business, lampooning the sacred. But the book has garnered a heap of glowing reviews and is shortlisted for the National Book Award, which will be announced Wednesday. America, at least the book-reading part of it, seems ready to see race through a comedic lens.
“People are reading it, and I think the generation behind me — I’m 56 —the people right behind have a feeling that my generation doesn’t, that enough time and pain has gone by the bridge where people can see these things a little more clearly,” McBride said. “It doesn’t mean the job is done, but we are seeing this change.”
He admits that he constructed his narrator as a cross-dressing boy who maintains the gender deception for years while witnessing major historical events because the situation offered “tremendous comedic possibilities.”
But satire, he notes, also paves the way for sorely needed discussion.
“We still don’t know how to politely discuss race in America. You say the wrong word, and you’re racist. You say the wrong thing, you dress a certain way, it says something about you. If you say the dreaded n-word, then you’re in trouble. If I dress up in a hoodie, I’m likely to get stopped,” he said.
“We can’t seem to straighten out the kind of drunk driver mentality that rules our ability to discuss race and class — the car just veers from one side to another, no middle ground. That’s what I tried to do in this book, to say we’re all fools. Nobody was right because the whole system was based on a terrible wrong. And a terrible wrong produces terrible extremes.”
Brown, who advocated armed insurrection to overthrow the slavery system and ultimately was hanged for treason, murder and inciting a slave revolt, held a special interest for McBride since he visited Harper’s Ferry during a research trip for an earlier book.
“I was just faced with the idea that this guy was so far ahead of everyone else. And that there were many who agreed with him but were afraid to speak up,” McBride said. “I wanted to write about him in a way that people would enjoy reading, without the sort of depression that accompanies those kinds of painful histories.”
You can draw a clear line from McBride’s previous work to the latest novel. His first book was a bestselling memoir called The Color of Water about growing up as the son of a white Jewish mother and a black father. In the next, Miracle at St. Anna, which was made into a movie directed by Spike Lee, McBride focused on black soldiers in World War II. And in Song Yet Sung, he told the story of a runaway slave and a slave catcher in pre-Civil War Maryland.
“I’m fascinated with the notion that in history there are people, both white and black, who really understand that slavery made slaves of us all. I thought John Brown was fascinating for that reason. … I do admire him.”
He has caught some heat for his portrayal of Douglass, sketched as a big-headed tough talker living with two women — one black, one white — who was noticeably absent from the Harper’s Ferry armory raid.
In a memorable scene, the great man tries to ply the Onion with drink and take advantage, not knowing that there’s a boy under that dress and bonnet. In the end, the child out-drinks the great man, who makes one final dive for the Onion but falls on the floor, “his mighty hair like a lion’s mane, down flat on his face.”
McBride noted that although Douglass apparently had a black wife and a white mistress: “I wasn’t constrained by history.”
His joy in the language is evident, filled with gristle and rotgut and barking and hollering to the Lord. To kill a man is to “deaden” him or “air him out,” and “hiving the bees” is code for rallying the slaves to revolt.
“I wrote it and rewrote it,” McBride said. “I grew up in a house where most of my relatives were from the South, including my mother. She spoke with that directness, so I just tried to listen for that. I just love that kind of language. It’s magical.”
The reception for the book — McBride threw himself into writing it during a low time in his life —has made him a bit more hopeful about issues of race. “You have to laugh to keep from crying about the whole business.”
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.