Rural Librarian: January 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, A Review

You don’t have to know the history of John Brown and his historic raid on Harpers Ferry, but it helps if you read “The Good Lord Bird” (2013) by James McBride. As a follower of Civil War history, I have often pondered the seeming suicide mission of American abolitionist John Brown. Was John Brown a visionary hero or a mentally ill ‘do gooder’? His famous raid of the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859 is often cited as a harbinger of the American Civil War. Brown’s call to black slaves to rise up and free themselves eventually happened, but not in his lifetime and not as he imagined.

John Brown: What Could Have Happened

In “The Good Lord Bird”, McBride creates a fascinating and funny look at what might have happened if John Brown acquired an unlikely good omen in the form of a cross-dressing mixed-race young man called Onion, also known as Henry Shackleford. The story of John Brown is seen from the point of view of this intelligent and resourceful young orphan who rides with John Brown and his men through frontier, mountains, and adventures.

While Brown was a passionate abolitionist, he was not a great strategist or general. Brown believed that black people in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, would rise up to help him in his cause but the locale lacked black population to assist. From the spark of freedom fire in Harpers Ferry, Brown believed that all African Americans would “hive”, riot, or rally to serve the cause of freedom from slavery. But it didn’t happen. While there are many accounts of John Brown, of his adventures and personality, this historic novel’s imagined dialogue is very believable, as well as comical and bittersweet.

Satire From Sainthood?

In many ways, John Brown is a revered martyr. How can one make comedy out of a well-intentioned white man who wanted to abolish slavery? MacBride succeeds in creating the voice of Onion who speaks in a less-educated dialect, but has the most significant things to say. “The Good Lord Bird” is well-written and flows smoothly as the story unfolds. History buffs know the ending, that John Brown is unsuccessful in Harpers Ferry. That his sons die. That he is captured, tried, and hung. That Thoreau and Emerson mourn his death. That Frederick Douglas thought he was crazy. But you still have to read James McBride’s version of this American folk tale, the legend of the abolitionist John Brown.

McBride has done his historic homework and presents the series of unfortunate events that lead up to the capture and hanging of John Brown. It all makes more sense. The religious fervor of a man that drove him to try to single-handedly eliminate slavery. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of the life of John Brown is that even unsuccessful acts can eventually lead to success overall. By attempting to create a slave rebellion, Brown brought the issue of slavery in America to the forefront of the national consciousness. So while John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a complete failure in that present moment, it was great PR that helped to bring an end to slavery. One crazy act can change the world.

Frederick Douglas is portrayed as a bit of a poser and letch, to Onion, but eventually meets with Brown and refuses to back him up. Did Douglas see the inevitable failure of Brown’s raid? Did Douglas truly regard Brown as mentally ill? It is refreshing and realistic that McBride chose not to show Brown or Douglas in a sanitized and saintly light. These historic characters are human and believable.

What Is the Good Lord Bird?

The title of the book refers to the ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct, a bird that is so big and beautiful, one has to say “Good Lord” when they see it. John Brown gives a good Lord bird feather to Onion and says, “I don’t feel bad about it neither, giving my special thing to you. The Bible says: ‘Take that which is special from thine own hand, and giveth to the needy, and you moveth in the Lord’s path.” Later, we learn that a feather from a good Lord bird gives the owner understanding that lasts a lifetime.

I was curious as to how McBride would paint the character of John Brown, a known religious fanatic with eccentric and progressive ideas about the world. Brown is portrayed as a father figure who over-estimates the character of everyone around him, assuming they shared his political beliefs and zeal. He is tireless and wily. While “The Good Lord Bird” is darkly comedic, the character of John Brown is respectfully represented, in all his wire-haired and grey-bearded glory. Not necessarily as the wild-eyed zealot on the front of the Kansas album, from a painting by American artist John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), but as a real and caring human being.

Better Understanding of John Brown

My favorite quote from “The Good Lord Bird” gave me goosebumps, and it comes from Onion who says, "Some things in this world just ain’t meant to be, not in the times we want ’em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that’s to come. There’s a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that’s a heavy load to bear." Indeed.

McBride’s novel about John Brown and the fight to end slavery transcends historic fiction and dark comedy to become an American classic, as if McBride through research (and time travel) were a true witness to an era that is still murky, complex, and shameful. Masterfully written, the unique and often humorous voice of Onion will make “The Good Lord Bird” hard to forget. As an added bonus for history geeks: there are cameos that include: John Wilkes Booth, Jeb Stewart, Stonewall Jackson, and Harriet Tubman.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, a Review

I have been on a bit of a biography binge lately and picked up a copy of "Autobiography of a Face (2003)" by Lucy Grealy, an Irish American writer who has chronicled her decades-long battle with cancer and the search for identity. This is not a story of triumph and courage. Grealy doesn't ask us for our pity or admiration for her survival against very slim odds. Instead, a story unfolds.

Ewing's Sarcoma

Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 9, Grealy goes through five years of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. As a result of that surgery, much of her lower jaw is removed. After the surgery and therapies, Grealy undergoes over 40 operations to repair the loss of her lower jaw for cosmetic and physical reasons.

Hospital and Recovery

There are many stories of Lucy going to the hospital for extended periods of time and enjoying it. Grealy's parents were ill-equipped, financially and emotionally, to deal with their sick daughter and often seemed to abandon her at the hospital. Lucy revels in the hierarchy of the other children patients who are ranked by seriousness of illness, quantity of surgeries, and the number of scars. Lest one think that Grealy's cancer journey is a piece of cake, there are also plenty of episodes of pain, vomiting, loneliness, and terrible self-consciousness. We are a society that is face-focused. Every magazine, every movie is all about the head shot that shows the face, preferably beautiful and symmetrical.

Grealy's memoir is also an important look into the United States healthcare system in the 20th century. Bone growing, bone grafting, and cosmetic surgeries are still risky and somewhat experimental. For years, Lucy underwent painful surgeries to try to achieve better eating, talking, and as the title of the book implies, a more symmetrical and pleasing face. Many of these surgeries were not successful as grafted bones were reabsorbed by Grealy's body. The surgeries push Lucy and her parents into a downward slope of struggling to pay bills and leading lives of poverty.

Face as Identity

While being a teen and adolescent is inherently filled with confusion, searching, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, imagine going through all of that and having what is perceived as a physical deformity. Cancer, surgeries, poverty, and a stressed family dynamic all work against Lucy Grealy. But Grealy does something powerful in the midst of coping with pain, surgery, alienation, and growing up -- she chooses to read and write in a way that will serve her well for the rest of her life. Unable to control her body, Lucy chooses to focus on her mind and her intellect.

Lucy survives childhood cancer to young adulthood and attends Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. From this rigorous academic setting Grealy emerges a poet, a cult hero, and a gifted writer. Grealy describes the life of her younger years, searching for identity and for a place to belong. And she tells a great story.

But the star of "Autobiography of a Face" is the writing. I found myself reading and re-reading entire paragraphs to enjoy the beautiful flow of language that deftly weaves the story and back story of a brilliant life. Consider this: "The general plot of life is sometimes shaped by the different ways genuine intelligence combines with equally genuine ignorance. I put all my effort into looking at the world as openly, unbiasedly, and honestly as possible, but I could not recognize my own self as a part of this world. I took great pains to infuse a sense of grace and meaning into everything I saw, but I could not apply those values to myself. Personally, I felt meaningless, or, more precisely, I felt I meant nothing to no one."

Sadly, Grealy's life ends in an addiction to pain pills brought about by the endless surgeries, and an overdose of heroin, no doubt to ease the pain she felt acutely. It makes me wonder how often surgeries are performed not for the patient, but for us, for society, so that we can look at others without wincing or gaping at their physical differences. Lucy railed against her face being called deformed, against any heroics attached to her years of chemotherapy and surgeries. In recommending "Autobiography of a Face" I emphasize the original and intimate writing of Lucy Grealy for what it is--unabashedly beautiful. Also, the afterword by Grealy's friend Ann Patchett is moving and unforgettable.

You may inter-library loan "Autobiography of a Face" via the Pioneer Memorial Public Library, or you may order a copy through Amazon. If you do purchase a copy of this book via Amazon, the Library receives four-percent of your purchase price.