I have always been wary of award-winning books. Something about them, that makes me most skeptical to pick them up and start reading. May be that is why, I get all wired when I start reading an award-winning title. It has happened in the past and I thought it would happen again; however this year’s NBA winner, “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride took me by surprise. I actually enjoyed reading this, though in parts it did get tedious, but overall, it was an irresistible experience. I would keep the book in-between and immediately get back to it. I had to soak in everything it had to offer.
“The Good Lord Bird” is about a boy – Henry Shackleford (an African-American slave), who is abducted by John Brown (a white abolitionist), following a brawl. We all have heard of John Brown – the zealot, who wanted to abolish slavery in America and succeeded to a large extent. The novel is about Henry also known as Henrietta (as he is mistaken to be a girl by John Brown and his men), and the incidents that occur, as seen through his eyes. He is known as “Onion” by John Brown and that is another name that sticks.
Henry observes people around him as the group is on the move to free slaves, wage wars against people who are Pro-Slaves and think of ways and means to win the battle against slavery. What I found most interesting in the book were the parts of Henry being a girl, and interacting with other white men and people of his own colour. Why is he a girl? Because John Brown mistakes him to be one, given his skin colour and hair texture and that sticks. In order to save his life and be free (which is of a conflicting nature in his head sometimes), Henry pretends to be a girl.
McBride captures an age gone by beautifully through use of language, idiosyncrasies, and description of the landscape. The story moves from Kansas to Missouri and Virginia with great ease and aplomb and so do the characters, as seen by Henry. The writing almost feels real, though you know that most of it is made up or rather all of it is, and yet you cannot help yourself but think of the conversations and incidents to have occurred.
There is a plethora of characters that Henry meets along the way, and they all have a role to play, which McBride executes with great ease and charm. The book is funny in most places and yet there is the tragic aura to it, given the concept of slavery and other issues mentioned. There is a lot of depth of emotion to the book, lend by various characters – from one of the whores in a brothel to John Brown’s sons, to even a couple of Pro-Slavers.
James McBride takes a major chunk of history and makes it his own, which is something very few authors can manage to achieve. Why is the title what it is? For that, you would have to read the book to find out. I can only say one thing, that perhaps this book has to a large extent changed my opinion of award-winning books. It is definitely going to be read again in 2014.