I’m a big fan of Goodreads.com, a sort of Facebook-for-book-nerds, not just because it satisfies my urge to organize virtual bookshelves and keep track of the books I read, but also because the user-generated reviews there offer more insight into what real readers think than the kinds of reviews you find in lit journals and the New York Times Book Review. The reviews at Goodreads are driven by the joy or ire the readers feel reading the books rather than by academic concerns and provide a glimpse into the collective unconscious of the reading public without pretense.
Though the panty-dropping five-star reviews of Shades of Grey are a notable exception, the one-star reviews written by readers who truly hated a book so much they couldn’t wait to vent about it are often more entertaining than the gushing reviews by smitten readers. These hate-filled diatribes often provide as much insight into the reader as they do into the book. When it comes to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, many of the most scathing reviews show us that some folks want their historical fiction a little more, well, historical. Or maybe they show us that some readers don’t really understand the concept of fiction at all, placing verisimilitude above all else. Either way, those who hated the book, a wildly irreverent and highly fictionalized account of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, solely because it plays fast and loose with historical fact are missing the point.
The Good Lord Bird emphasizes the fiction part of the historical fiction equation. The novel’s narrator, the young Henry “Onion” Shackleford, is pure invention. Onion, a slave with no real desire for freedom, is unwittingly freed by the infamous John Brown, who ends up accidentally getting the young boy’s father killed in the attempt. At their first meeting, Brown mishears Henry’s name as Henrietta, condemning him to spending the rest of the book masquerading as a girl. Onion quickly becomes Brown’s confidant and good luck charm, allowing the reader a backstage pass into Brown’s world. Onion is the soul of this novel, Sancho Panza to Brown’s delusional Don Quixote, following him into battle despite the desire to get as far away from his lunacy as possible. Pragmatic and aware of his own limits, ashamed to be playing a girl while enjoying the relative safety it offers him, Onion is a memorable narrator, one even the most historical accuracy-minded readers should be able to forgive McBride for inventing.
Some of the other characters in the Good Lord Bird, starting with Brown himself, might be a little harder for some to swallow, however. To be sure, McBride, who took home the 2013 National Book Award for this novel, walks a tightrope here, presenting Brown as a bit of a buffoon, a religious zealot prone to hour-long prayers during which his men nod off or sneak away while he rambles on, talking to his creator, blinded by righteous fury. McBride’s John Brown is a wild man, more comfortable in the backwoods of Kansas than in parlors of the East, where he goes to “hive the bees” and drum up support for his cause. Onion’s opinions of Brown waver over the course of the novel. Once she refers to him as a “self-righteous, ignorant, risk-taking, elephant-looking bum,” but she remains devoted to him even as she plots her escape from his traveling war against slavery, a cause in which she wants no part.
This portrayal of Brown as a delusional zealot is at once one of the novel’s greatest strengths and its most glaring weakness. As incandescent a character as Brown is, he begins to wear thin and descend into caricature by the end of the book. Still, it’s a bold vision of one of the most polarizing figures in American history. Not even historians can agree on characterizing Brown. Was he a hot-headed zealot with a messiah complex or a heroic visionary willing to go to great lengths for what he thought was right? Was he a terrorist, albeit it one with noble intentions, or simply a fool whose grasp of military strategy left a great deal to be desired? The answer is a matter of perception, and no one can fault McBride for playing it safe here. Too often historical fiction is so overly reverent that it seems to forget that its subjects were real, flesh-and-blood human beings, not just characters from the pages of history books. McBride gives his characters the zest of life and a darkly comic treatment that never lets readers forget their humanity. Even the esteemed Frederick Douglass, cast here as a drunken bigamist more suited to oratory than actually doing anything to fight slavery, isn’t spared from McBride’s Twain-like misanthropy. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel finds Douglass making a clumsy pass at Onion, who conspires to drink him under the table and leaves him passed out on the floor.
That sense of irreverence, the willingness to mine one of the darkest chapters of American history for humor and turn its key players into characters that leap off the page, is what keeps The Good Lord Bird afloat. Those who take issue with the way McBride subjugates historical fact to serve his story and get to the heart of essential truths would be wise to remember that, on some level, all history is fiction. When it comes to piecing together the past, what do we have to go on that isn’t clouded by our perceptions? Onion, as keen an observer of human nature as you’ll find anywhere, is savvy enough to know this. On the subject of the last meeting between Brown and Douglass, she says “I done heard tell of ten or twenty different variations in different books written on the subject, and various men of letters working their talking holes on the matter.” The Good Lord Bird gives us one of those versions, and it’s one that it is fraught with truth even if it’s mostly a lie.
Pages: 416 Total FoA pages: 40,634