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.