James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is a National Book Award-winning novel about the exploits of abolitionist John Brown. The story is told from the perspective of Onion, a former slave who was forcefully emancipated by John Brown. Onion is one of the most interesting and entertaining narrators that I have encountered in literature. Onion’s narrative voice as memorable and unique as Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn. I read this book for class; many of my classmates seemed annoyed by Onion’s narrative voice, but I thought it was the most intriguing aspect of the entire novel.
Although the novel is about historical figures and events, it manages to tell the story in a way that feels entirely fresh and unique. The novel is hilarious, and Onion, as a former slave, has an interesting opinion of John Brown’s actions. I was expecting the novel to be more serious than it was. I suppose I thought it would be “high brow” and more “literary” since it won the National Book Award, but McBride told an important story in a way that was honest, original, and heart-wrenching. This novel made me feel things. It was also very entertaining and funny. It is obvious that McBride conducted a significant amount of research while writing this novel, and I learned so many new things while reading. I think it is particularly interesting that McBride chose to portray some historical figures honestly, even though it might make them look unsavory (who would have thought you could dislike Frederick Douglass?!) If any of you are interested in history (or just reading a good, fun novel), I would highly recommend this book.
I read this book (for the third time) for one of my literature classes. On the surface, the book seems simple, but I find new things every time I read. And the more I read this book, the more I love it. I love Janie’s personality and perseverance. I love her attitude. I love her total fearlessness. Many have suggested that she is a weak character because she seems to need to be in relationships, but what other option did a poor African-American woman in the 1930s South have at the time? But the novel is much more than Janie’s development. I love the dialogue. I love the aspects of African-American folk culture. I love how Hurston was not afraid to talk about racism between black Americans. I love how she blisteringly demonstrates the racism inherent in white culture. This novel contains multitudes, and it is an essential aspect of Southern literature.
A lot of my classmates struggle to see this book as more than just a story about a woman forming and realizing her identity. It is much more. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston demonstrates a black culture that is vibrant and self-sustaining outside of white culture. Hurston was a segregationist – she believed that African-Americans should be separated from whites to preserve black culture. She saw white culture as a destructive force. In the novel, Hurston celebrates the vibrance of African-American language and folk life. The characters reference African-American folk heroes (Big John the Conqueror), get into bragging contests (braggadocio), and tell jokes. Their language is rich and unique. The book also showcases a black society that is successful and entirely self-sustaining. Hurston had many critics during her time (like Richard Wright), but they obviously did not realize the extent of Hurston’s effort.
Although Hurston uses the story of Janie to make a greater political statement, Janie’s journey is important. We can all learn something about her journey to gain independence and find her voice. I’m still not sure how I feel regarding Janie and Tea Cake, but Tea Cake helped Janie find herself, and that’s all that matters.
I would recommend this book to anyone. It is a quick read, and it is essential reading for feminists, folklorists/anthropologists, and lovers of the South and Southern lit.