This novel by James McBride was just wonderful. I only discovered it because I heard it was to be made into a film. When I heard about the subject matter, I knew I wanted to read it before seeing it. The film, should it be made will certainly make it onto my ‘must see’ list but I am delighted I read if first.
The novel has a vein of humour running through it, which given the the subject matter of slavery and abolition is somewhat surprising. However, James McBride carries this off tremendously in the story of little Henry who is mistaken for Henrietta (the fact that Henrietta sounds like Henry ain’t a… in certain accents is important) and who lives as a girl as a result; the moment for full disclosure never really appears.
Central to the story is the ‘true’ story of John Brown and his mission to end slavery, one way or another. Seen as an outlaw by many law makers and keepers but seen as a hero to others, Brown sets about freeing the slaves in the belief he is doing the Lord’s work. He is a bible quoting, larger than life character who comes across as highly engaging; I’m ashamed to say that the only fact I knew about him before reading this novel was how he died.
Henry (or Henrietta) starts the book as the son of a slave but is freed by Brown. As s/he stays close to the abolitionist and his created family, ‘his’ sense of black identity grows. His sense of self is more complex, though, not least because, although most people presume he is a girl, some people see through his costume. His struggle to become is own person continues throughout the book.
Other famous abolitionists appear in the narrative, Harriet Tubman comes out of this better than Frederick Douglass, but it is John Brown and his vision for an end to slavery that shines out of the pages. If they go ahead ad make a film of this book, I shall be first in the queue.
‘The Good Lord Bird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?