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The Good Lord Bird – A Review

The Good Lord Bird Book Cover The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Fiction
Riverhead
August 20th, 2013
Kindle version
433
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594486344/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1594486344&linkCode=as2&tag=jasfryonwri-20

The story of Onion, a young black boy who gets mistaken for a girl by John Brown on the Kansas frontier. Onion plays the part of the girl and follows along with the adventures of John Brown as he attempts to eradicate the world of the injustice of slavery.

I loved this book. I’ve never read anything by James McBride prior to this award winner. I did mention this won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013, right? It did. Notable book. I looked it up on Amazon after it won. One thing struck me right off — there were only 100 reviews at the time. That was on the day after the award was announced. I felt like it was under-represented for having won that award.

Before I get into the book, I want to explore something that I feel needs to be said. Books win these awards because they have merits that a group of fellow writers deem laudable. Last year The Round House won. I was familiar with Erdrich’s work from Love Medicine, and readily jumped on the bandwagon for The Round House afterward. It was a compelling read that offered more than lyrical prose — there was a lot of humanity tucked away in those pages. Some real telling bits. And that’s what I found in The Good Lord Bird.

McBride makes much of the story comical. The perspective of the book is from this boy who’s father is killed outright in attempt to free him of slavery. The boy is scooped up by John Brown and absconded to the prairie where he’s met by the band of freedom fighters bound in glory. The boy was dressed in a potato sack and mistaken for a girl because the father went to correct John Brown after he’d said Henry was a girl, but only got out the word “Henry ain’t a…” and John Brown thought his name was Henrietta. That’s just one piece of the comedy and there was plenty more.

John Brown was painted a lunatic Christian soldier whose merits could be seen in his immovable defiance of the institution of slavery and his hell-bent quest to liberate the slaves using military means.

Most of the way through the book, I found myself wondering just how much Onion (Henry) would put up with before running off to get a taste of freedom. He had chances throughout, but he stuck it out and the ending was as compelling an ending as I could ever hope to read. I blew through the final 25% of the book, in a mad dash to resolve the conflict, even knowing the outcome from history for Old John Brown.

The folksy language used by the narrator adds to the period and immerses you into the story. There’s much to learn of historical significance, but so much more to learn about humanity, freedom, and the overarching depths of the human soul.

I have a new goal to read the past winners of the National Book Award as well as the latest ones as they’re announced. Two years running, I’ve not been disappointed.

The Road – A Taste of Hope

The Road Book Cover The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Post Apocalyptic
Knopf
2006
Kindle version
241
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307387895/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0307387895&linkCode=as2&tag=jasfryonwri-20

A man and a boy survive a post apocalyptic world by traveling along a desolate road seeking food and shelter. They encounter many bleak adventures.

I went into reading The Road thinking it was a much longer book than it really turned out to be. I thought it was going to be a tome. I must have heard something about it’s length on Reddit or somewhere else. Whoever said it was long was mistaken. It couldn’t have been any shorter. Clocking in at 241 pages hardly counts as a novel these days. Well, it does, but a damn short one.

I was geared up to be oh so depressed afterward. I had some anti-depressants tabbed into an old Pez dispenser. I ordered some Chinese and set to work on this book. To my surprise it was less depressing and more uplifting.

McCarthy has a knack when it comes to presenting evil in an understated manner. He did it so well in No Country for Old Men. I expected there to be a villain like The Judge from Blood Meridian streaking after the man and the boy, but that was not the case. There was plenty of evil in the page. Stretches where the landscape and the aftermath of the ill-fated world was the overall evil presence too. But McCarthy’s other books pulled us through the trenches with those evils and showed us that evil persists, even if there are good men in the world. Whereas the message seemed to change a bit with The Road.

The Road shows that one must have hope to fight through the despair. The ending shocked me a bit. I thought they would end up dead, both of them. Dead as the landscape around them. Again not the way it turned out.

I think I connect with McCarthy’s writing due to his use of language. I’m going to update this review with some excerpts to show exactly what I mean.

American Gods, A Review

American Gods

Neil Gaimon’s American Gods

I finished reading American Gods. The book by Neil Gaimon has garnered a fair bit of hype since it was first published in 2001. It’s won the hearts of fantasy readers and could be a bit of a genre-breaking book too, as its gained much attention from mainstream readers.

There are spoilers in the coming paragraphs…don’t read them if you don’t want the plot ruined for you.

The story begins by introducing us to Shadow, a prisoner closing in on completing a three year stint for what turns out to be a robbery gone wrong. Shadow is a big man, an imposing figure. He’s also got a love of his life, Laura, waiting for him on the outside, and a decent job from a good friend. But then something terrible happens, Shadow is called into the Warden’s office and told his wife has been killed in a car crash. This occurs days before he was to be released and reunited with her. He’s┬ádevastated. As a result of her death, the prison lets him go early.

After his release and on his way to attend the funeral of his beloved wife, a man by the name of Wednesday tries to employ him, and this where the book takes off. Wednesday wants an errand boy, a driver, and someone to give his eulogy should he die. What he doesn’t tell Shadow is that he’s an old god, one of the greats, and his latest quest is to save the old gods from extinction.

The story gets a bit weird here. Shadow ends up joining up with Wednesday and meeting a whole cast of characters, old gods, new gods, and some fickle characters in between. It’s a romp in a fantastical realm, where old gods once conquered the hearts and souls of men, but now fight for their survival.

The story pits the old gods against their modern counterparts. The new gods of the internet and public relations have no interest in keeping Thor or his historical brothers in the world. They’re working against them to try to stamp out their existence.

The book does a great job pulling together all these mythical characters and breathing quality, non-cardboard cutout lives to them. The book sheds light on how we worship new technology, just as our ancestors worshiped their mythical sky creatures.

My favorite part of the book came by way of asides to the main narrative. These after-chapter jaunts into a god’s singular creation seemed to be the best written part of the books. We see a brother and sister sold into slavery in Africa, travel to Barbados and the US respectively, and transform into god’s among their people there, leading a revolution in Barbados and healing family in the US tale. There are other asides throughout the novel too.

I’ve not read any other Gaimon, and American Gods is a good ten years old. But I think it’s worth a read if you’re at all intrigued by the old gods.