Author Interviews
6:55 am
Sat August 17, 2013

'Good Lord Bird' Gives Abolitionist Heroes Novel Treatment

Originally published on Sun August 18, 2013 6:35 am

Before abolitionist and Harpers Ferry raider John Brown became a hymn, he was a flesh and blood human being: Bible-thumping, rifle-toting, heroic and maybe more than a little unhinged.

A portrait of Brown and Frederick Douglass is at the heart of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, a new novel with an unlikely narrator: a 12-year-old Kansas Territory slave named Henry Shackleford. Brown liberates Henry after a confrontation with Henry's master. He calls the boy — who has fair, curly hair and is dressed in a potato sack — Little Onion, but he thinks Henry is a girl, and to stay safe, Henry doesn't contradict him.

McBride is also the author of The Color Of Water: A Black Man's Tribute To His White Mother. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss Brown's and Douglass' real friendship and why he wanted Henry to be mistaken for a girl.


Interview Highlights

On putting some of the Wild West into John Brown's story

"The hard part about writing about a guy like John Brown is that he was so serious, and his cause was so serious, that most of what's been written about him is really serious and, in my opinion, a little bit boring. Not all of it, but I wanted to kind of thrust him into the Jesse James category or the Western category so that people would appreciate, you know, what he really was and what he tried to do."

On finding Henry's narrative voice

"I love the language of, you know, the old, black, country man with a blues guitar and ... boots and the quick banter. ... I just love that voice and I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life and then telling a, just a grand whopper."

On the decision to have Henry mistaken for a girl

"I really had to put him in a situation where I could also kind of work with identity, which powers stories. And so it seemed fitting that he would be a black boy mistaken to be a black girl at a time when black life was not valued with the same equality that white life was valued. ...

"And also [I wanted] to communicate the overwhelming moral power and courage and drive of John Brown to release blacks from slavery whether they wanted to be released or not. Just the force of the man to just push into this tavern, get into a gunfight, grab this kid, run off not paying attention to whether the kid is a boy or a girl, because his charge is to free all African-Americans. And because he's wearing these blinders, if you will, he just doesn't see things that he should see."

On Henry's characterization of Frederick Douglass as a "speeching parlor man"

"Frederick Douglass refers to himself as that. Frederick Douglass was a man who made speeches; Henry was a kid who had been out on the plains and firing weapons and getting drunk and meeting parlor folks and so forth. He doesn't have a great regard for the East Coast abolitionist in general, which makes him that much more interesting and that much more compelling and also, in my opinion, more real.

"The abolitionists were not like the rugged people out West and they were not like John Brown either. They were people who made speeches and did politics. So in this book, there's no space for that. This is a book about real people who did real things, some of which are fictionalized but much of which is real, or was real and really happened."

On the relationship between Brown and Douglass

"In real life, they were good friends and in real life John Brown went to Frederick Douglass and said, 'I'm gonna attack Harpers Ferry and if you come, thousands of blacks will come.' ... So it was important to show that they had a very close relationship and that John Brown trusted Frederick Douglass, but that at the end of his life, John Brown was very disappointed that Frederick Douglass did not accompany him to Harpers Ferry on that suicide mission."

On Douglass' infidelity

"I had some fun with Frederick Douglass' character. ... You know, serious students of African-American history might not be pleased. ...

"Frederick Douglass was married to a black woman and he had a white mistress that at a certain point lived in the house with him ... a German woman. And it's true. ... She lived with him for a long time and then she went back to Germany at a certain point and ended up committing suicide. And then he had another white mistress who was younger and she hung about the house too."

On coming to terms with Douglass' flaws

"Listen, don't meet your heroes. If you meet your heroes, you're always going to be disappointed. Frederick Douglass was a great man, but would I want my daughter to marry him? Probably not. That doesn't mean that I don't think he's a great man. ...

"I think he was a great leader and he was a profoundly gifted writer as well. But you know the problem with leaders is that they have personal lives. Look, I think Frederick Douglass was flawed in the sense that he lived like a man who had power lived back in that time, and most men who had power lived the way they wanted to live. And women had very little, if any, power at all. I hope people don't take it personally; it's just an illumination."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Before John Brown became a hymn, he was a flesh and blood human being; Bible-thumping, rifle-toting, heroic, but maybe more than a little unhinged. A portrait of John Brown and another of Frederick Douglass, are at the heart of a new novel with an unlikely narrator: A 12 year old boy, Henry Shackleford, who's father is killed when they're liberated by John Brown, who calls the child, who has fair, curly hair and is dressed in a potato sack, Little Onion. And thinks he's a girl.

Henry, to stay safe, lives that way, and lives to leave behind a powerful, improbable, hilarious and moving memoir. The novel is "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride. And the author of previous best-sellers including "The Color of Water" and "Song Yet Sung," joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: It's a kind of hilarious story and an instructive one. It says a lot about John Brown as to how he came to think Henry was a girl. Someone says, Henry ain't a, and he thinks he hears Henrietta. And you right: Whatever he believed, he believed. 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.

MCBRIDE: And he was. He was a real white man and more than that, he was a character. And the hard part about writing about a guy like John Brown is that he was so serious, and his cause was so serious, that most of what has been written about him is really serious. And, in my opinion, a little bit boring - not all of it. But I wanted to kind of thrust him into the Jesse James category, or the Western category, so that people would appreciate, you know, what he really was and what he tried to do.

SIMON: What made you decide on Henry's narrative voice?

MCBRIDE: I love the language of, you know, the old black countryman who, you know, is with a blues guitar and concrete boots, and the quick banter and telling those whoppers. You know, I just love that voice. And I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life, and in telling just a grand whopper. And I really had to put him in a situation where I could also kind of work with identity, which powers stories.

And so, it seemed fitting that he would be a black boy mistaken to be a black girl, at a time when black life was not valued with the same equality that white life was valued with.

SIMON: Was part of the attraction to you that by, can I use the phrase, passing as a girl, Henry was able to see things that he wouldn't if you were a 12-year-old and an older boy?

MCBRIDE: Yeah absolutely, and also he's innocent - the presumed innocence of girls and also the presumed invisibility of black girls, which were probably on the lowest rank of the totem pole in terms of life during slavery. And also to communicate the overwhelming moral power and courage and drive of John Brown, to release blacks from slavery no matter whether they wanted to be released or not.

Just the force of the man to just push into this tavern, get into a gunfight, grab this kid, run off - not paying attention to whether the kid is a boy or girl - because his charge to free all African-Americans. And, because he's wearing these blinders - if you will - he just doesn't see things that he should see.

SIMON: Henry has got an idea that everything that motivates John Brown begins with the fact that he had a lot of mouths to feed.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: With John Brown in real life, he had 22 kids and 12 of them lived.

SIMON: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Henry also notes that, you know, he was a lot hungrier when he was free than when he was a slave. There are a lot of inconsistencies in life when you look at fully dimensional characters who are moving about the real, and sometimes the fictional world.

SIMON: You've made note of what I found a devastating remark that Henry makes about Frederick Douglass, where he refers to him as a speeching parlor man.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Frederick Douglass refers to himself as that. Frederick Douglass was a man who made speeches. Henry was a kid who had been out on the Plains and firing weapons and getting drunk and meeting parlor folks, and so forth. He doesn't have a great regard for the East Coast abolitionists in general, which makes him that much more interesting and that much more compelling, and also, in my opinion, more real.

The abolitionists were not like the rugged people out West. And they were not like John Brown either. They were people who made speeches and did politics. So in this book, there's no space for that. This is a book about real people who did real things, some of which are fictionalized but much of which is real, or was real and really happened.

SIMON: Well, that raised the question, in depicting John Brown and Frederick Douglass, how important was historical accuracy to you?

MCBRIDE: In real life they were good friends. And in real life, John Brown went to Frederick Douglass and said: I'm going to attack Harpers Ferry, and if you come, thousands of blacks will come.

SIMON: Yeah, the real meeting that you described towards the end of the book.

MCBRIDE: The real meeting happened, yeah. So it was important to show that they had a very close relationship, and that John Brown trusted Frederick Douglass. But then at the end of his life, John Brown was very disappointed that Frederick Douglass did not accompany him to Harpers Ferry on that suicide mission.

But I mean I had some fun with Frederick Douglass's character. You know...

SIMON: Sounds like Frederick Douglass had some fun with Frederick Douglass's character, if I might put it that way.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Well, you know, serious students of African-American history might not be pleased. But...

SIMON: We'll just explain that in your rendition of Frederick Douglass, he's got a private life the New York Post would like to go into.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean it's that Frederick Douglass was married to a black woman. And he had a white mistress that at a certain point lived in the house with them.

SIMON: A German woman, yeah.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, German woman, and it's true.

SIMON: I checked that. I must say, when I read that in your novel I thought is there any chance that this is true? And it's true.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, it's true. Yeah. And she lived with them for a long time and then she went back to Germany at a certain point and ended up committing suicide. And then he had another white mistress who was younger and she hung about the house, too.

Listen, don't meet your heroes. If you meet your heroes you're always going to be disappointed. Frederick Douglass was a great man but would I want my daughter to marry him? Probably not, that doesn't mean that I don't think that he's a great man. He's a great man. But...

SIMON: So, I met him in this novel - and you're quite right, I wouldn't want my daughters to marry him. But in any event, I would like to hear him speak. I would like to talk to him. I think I'd almost follow him anywhere, too.

MCBRIDE: I agree. I think he was a great leader and he was a profoundly gifted writer, as well. But, you know, the problem with leaders is that they have personal lives. Look, I think Frederick Douglass was flawed in the sense that he lived like a man who had power lived back in that time. And most men who had power lived the way the way they wanted to live. And women had had very little, if any, power at all.

SIMON: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: I hope people don't take it personally. It's just an illumination.

SIMON: Can you, as the beloved author of "The Color of Water" - this wonderful memoir you wrote and the subtitle: "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" - can you get away with those kinds of depictions of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, that maybe other writers couldn't?

MCBRIDE: Whew. That's a tough question. Probably. I don't know that a white writer would do that. But then I don't know that a black writer who writes, you know, "Fiddler On The Roof" wouldn't find his books in the black section of the bookstore.

SIMON: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: So, yes - the answer to your question is yes. And that shows you the kind of limitations that we all live under. And that's probably one of the reasons why I wrote this book.

SIMON: Well, novels like this can help.

MCBRIDE: Well, I hope so. But I hope it brings a smile to people's faces. I don't like books that are depressing. Anything that will illuminate the commonality of our experiences is a good thing to have, I think.

SIMON: James McBride, his new novel, "The Good Lord Bird." Thanks so much for being with us.

MCBRIDE: Delighted, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.