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Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series



The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride



            Masterful and annoying at the same time. As told in the reminiscences of Henry—aka Onion or Henrietta, the story alternates between page-turning, compelling chapters where I couldn’t put it down, and places where it was painfully forced. 

            I’ll get those out of the way first.

            There are a few attempts at comedy that don’t work, stretching believability. To make a scene presumably comic, the author inserts the misunderstanding of the slang term “trim” with no significant advancement of the plot. It’s distractingly unnatural speech, too. Henry never calls giving haircuts “selling trim” except in this scene. (Based on his other dialog and narration, I think he would say, “I gives folks a trim” or “I cuts hair.”)

            At times the author hammers a lesson home. I’m not sure if he meant for his narrator to be doing this in character, or if the author felt the need in case the reader didn’t get it. Once we’re told how passing for a girl is like the dissimulation involved in being a slave, the repetition wasn’t needed for effectiveness. The Good Lord Bird’s meaning is handled a little less heavily, but it’s still repeated. Even better, in my opinion, would be to set the scenes in a way that the reader has his or her own “aha”, rather than having it delivered, or make it clear that Henry is having this discovery in the moment of the story.

            McBride elsewhere shows he is capable of gracefully sliding lessons under the door without knocking loudly. Henry’s initial reactions to his forced freedom and his gradual conversion are handled in a manner that allows the reader to develop insights without the author’s pushing. The religious and ethical questions of a violent fight against a true evil are also left to the reader to decide, though the moral ambiguity is believably resolved for Henry, as a young adolescent in the middle of Brown’s mission. Witnessing this process plants seeds of thought about modern wars, and the author, wisely, does not force them to grow.

            Even though of course I knew what  would happen, how John Brown’s raid would end, the portrait of Brown, the story of his plotting and his off-and-on band of soldiers, is fascinating. Historical characters come to life as real humans. Frederick Douglass gets off his history-book pedestal, while Harriet Tubman is portrayed convincingly as deserving of hers. Brown is complex, a father, fanatic, a killer, a kind friend. The author builds suspense in spite of this being history, by bringing us behind the scenes.

            Henry is funny and observant, aware of his own shortcomings as well as the weaknesses and strengths of others. This trait makes him tolerable, but overall I found him irritating.  His 19th century slang feels accurate though occasionally overdone. (I got tired of reading “little red lane” for throat.) The extent to which he charms people in the book puzzled me, but we all have our tastes in people. Kudos to McBride for making me want to know what happens next in a book where history has revealed aspects of the plot already, and I didn’t enjoy the company of the narrator.