Story brings Washington-era slavery to life
The Good Lord Bird
By James McBride
Riverhead Books. 432 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier
Beneath the ground at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia lies the foundation of George Washington's bow-windowed reception room - the architectural precedent to the modern Oval Office - just a few feet from the kitchen where the enslaved man called Hercules cooked for our first president.
On the surface, the story of Hercules rising from plantation slave to celebrated chef, his talents and loyalty rewarded with special privileges, is as elegant as the painting of him in a white coat and toque created by Washington's own portraitist.
But a portrait isn't a story. Washington's iconic status obscures actions that contradict his philosophies; Hercules is unknowable because he isn't free to act. In the "Philadelphia White House," the plain moral truth is told underground, where the symbol of democracy shares a wall with human bondage.
A story is a kind of house, enclosing our unfinished business as tangibly as do bricks and mortar. Like our young republic, James McBride's riveting, risk-taking novel, The Good Lord Bird, is framed on the faulty foundation of slavery and wrought by tension between the appearance of liberty and the reality of slavery.
The carpenter who builds this slave narrative is an irreverently funny teenager, Henry "the Onion" Shackleford, the son of a preacher who "makes the best rotgut in Kansas Territory," a self-proclaimed liar who doesn't trust a liar, a skeptic who sees power and danger in emblems and omens. As witness to John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., he is warden of the feather of the Good Lord Bird - so rare and beautiful it stuns the viewer into rapture - and the ultimate understanding this omen promises. As a narrator, he's controversial, but he's the right man for the job.
The Onion says, "Nobody asked the Negro what he thunk about the whole business, by the way, nor the Indian, when I think of it, for neither of their thoughts didn't count, even though most of the squabbling was about them on the outside, for at bottom the whole business was about land and money, something nobody who was squabbling seemed to ever get enough of."
The reader says, "Amen."
The Onion's point of view does more than change the angle of vision on a well-known chapter of American history; it gives the slave boy agency, compelling McBride (who will appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Sept. 12) to create a flesh-and-blood character and not a mere captive in John Brown's famous crusade. Closer to Twain than to Tarantino, McBride doesn't for a moment glorify war; the Onion is "done with the smell of gunpowder and blood," and he's excused from the goriest battles because Brown mistakes the sack-clothed, light-skinned boy he's rescued from slavery for a girl. If this masquerade stretches credibility at times, the Old Man's error is prescient, portending the fatal flaw in his righteous plot. "Whatever he believed, he believed," says the Onion. "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."
The satirical humor in The Good Lord Bird is purposeful, bringing iconic figures back to life: John Brown as both hero and lunatic, the great Harriet Tubman humble as a washerwoman in a room full of suits, Frederick Douglass as a drunken womanizer and pampered "speechifier" whose failure to act finally inspires the Onion to drop his gender fraud. Like Huck Finn traveling with the King and the Duke, the Onion reports the absurdities he sees and empathizes with the oppressed: white or negro or Indian, man or woman, slave or free.
If John Brown couldn't free four million slaves, he'd raid plantations and run fugitives north to Canada, destroying the value of slave property and crushing the evil economy. In this transaction, recounts the Onion, "He was as good a salesman as you could find . . . and . . . he rosied it up so nicely . . . the whole thing sounded easy as picking apples out an orchard. Truth is, though, it was a bold plan, outrageously stupid, and for his men, young, adventurous roughnecks who liked a cause, just the kind of adventure they signed up for."
There's no spoiling the end of this story. Brown's 18 men are outnumbered, doomed as they seize arms and ammunition from the federal arsenal in their failed (and fatal) attempt to instigate a slave rebellion. But the liar who carried the token feather from Kansas Territory to Virginia lives to write the tragic truth about relationships corrupted by commerce.
With history, only facts can free a story from its frame. But with the transcendent The Good Lord Bird, James McBride succeeds in deepening our understanding of historical events - and making us reflect on how we still harness pieces of oppressed cultures in order to save (or sell) ourselves.
James McBride: "The Good Lord Bird"
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Admission: Free, no tickets required. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents
Elizabeth Mosier teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the Pennsylvania Young Writers Day program. Contact her at www.ElizabethMosier.com.