The book club met yesterday morning to talk about The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. The discussion was spirited and far-reaching, including discussions of current events as well as the historical realities of John Brown’s time.
One of the most interesting parts of the discussion revolved around comparisons to Huckleberry Finn, which many reviews have noted. Some of the book clubbers thought this was a valid comparison, given the dialect, the humor, and the satire, but some didn’t quite see it.
One book club member brought a biography of John Brown in order to talk about the accuracy of the book’s portrayal of Brown. Most of the broad strokes of Brown’s life were true to all accounts, but some of the specific actions of secondary characters were embellished or completely created by McBride.
Because this book was based on real events and real people, we also discussed some of the additional secondary characters, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Douglass does not get a particularly positive treatment in the book, but we discovered no basis in reality for these descriptions.
Apart from the historical aspect of the novel, there is Onion. As a character he is a complete fiction, but he provides most of the commentary for the book. He is the fly on the wall of history. As a review from NPR mentions,
McBride adds a darkly comic plot twist that is admittedly hard to wrap your head around: what if Old John Brown spent his last four years tending a prepubescent transvestite who became the only one to escape the raid unscathed?
When viewed this way, the comedic aspect of the book becomes readily apparent. There are parts of this book that are laugh-out-loud funny, not the least of which are the several places where John Brown starts praying. As readers, we are shuffling our feet, waiting with the rest of them for him to eventually (sometimes an hour later) finish so they could eat.
We also discussed how this novel would have been received had the author been Caucasian. Would it have been different? Perhaps, we decided, and referred back to the controversy over Huck Finn at the time of its publication (and to this day, in some ways).
All in all, most people found this an engaging read, even for those who had a hard time in the beginning. Most of the people who attended gave it 4 stars.