Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Good Lord Bird

James McBride
The Good Lord Bird

Riverhead, 2013

The novel is written as a memoir of Henry Shackleford which was found in the middle of the XX century. It told the story of the only Negro survivor of the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1859.
The story begins four years before the battle, when Henry and his devout father lived in a small town in Kansas. In the barber shop, where the father of 12 -year-old Henry worked, comes abolitionist John Brown. There he clashes with local slaveholder, after which Henry’s father is killed, and Brown takes the boy with him. Because of baggy clothes, more like rags, Brown takes Henry for a girl, because all colored look the same for a white man. Kidnapped Henry decided not to cross Brown, and so the next four years of his life he will impersonate a girl, wearing women's clothes and responding to the name Henrietta. «But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.» Henry gets the nickname Little Onion after him eating lucky mascot in the form of dried onion, belonging to Brown.

Brown and his army of 12 people have been known throughout America, although they are nothing special. They are starving, stealing from Pro Slavers food, weapons and horses, freeing chaoticly blacks from slavery against the will of the blacks. Brown's army includes his sons and a few sorry-looking farmers.

Brown himself is very devout man, and has a habit to to pray to God at the wrong time. He eats almost nothing, literally eating the holy spirit, can not sleep for days and naps right on the horse, but prays countless times a day, even when «using the privy». But Brown is willing to tolerate infidelity, if a person opposes slavery. But if someone says to the Old Man's face that he is pro slavery, the Old Man could kill him right on the spot.

Starting reading this novel, I was afraid that I would not understand it. American history, though short, has its key moments and niceties. My fears were vain: the book, albeit based on real historical events, leaves room for fiction, and in the course of reading the overall picture becomes clear.

Despite the seriousness of these events and their impact on American history, the novel is largely farcical, almost without a single positive character. Historical figures appear in a burlesque manner, and fictional protagonists stand out with stupidity, ignorance, greed, cowardice and duplicity. The narrator Onion spares no one, himself included, with his mordant comments. Douglas here is a womanizer and a lush, Tubman is Generale, Brown is a crazy preacher, con man, arrogant rogue. Americans certainly imagined their heroes not like this.

Since the book is a memoir written by already a mature man, Henry had time to think about everything that it happened, evaluate the actions and deeds of the Old Man and his army. Narrative voice here are both naive (12 -year-old child) and cynical (older man).

Largely because of Henry’s voice this is such a funny book. There are enough monets to laugh out loud, from Onion’s comments to dialogues between simple uneducated blacks. One of the funniest scenes is about a federal agent when Onion warns Old Man about a possible approximation of an agent: "Captain! I smell bear!" All because Brown told the boy that an agent smells of bear, because «uses bear grease to oil his hair».

Mocking everyone, Henry is not building no illusions about himself and the entire Negro race. For several years Henry wore dresses because he was afraid to be a man. Like any other black person he was taught to lie and cheat, being smarter than white masters for a few positions, and Henry lied and cheated.

History is devoid of logic, this book teaches us. In the history there are no straight lines, on the contrary, history is full of curves. Disappointing truth about the Negro race is expressed in the words of the narrator: if not whites, Negroes would never fight for their freedom. Blacks would rather run than go with a weapon on their master. «Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.»

The Good Lord Bird is written on «black» English, but not in its extreme form when you not so much reading as decrypting the written. Memoirs are written by semi-literate man who never learned to speak and write by all the rules.

The novel can be characterized with its slightly distorted title , - good lord novel.

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