Friday, September 27, 2013

The National Book Festival 2013: James McBride

I made it to the rapidly filling tent where James McBride was about to speak as a light drizzle transformed into a ferocious downpour. When McBride took the podium, he complained that another author had had beautiful weather, but here he was, having to compete with the rain.

I'd say McBride got the best of that rain though, as he talked about his new book The Good Lord Bird, his love of the abolitionist John Brown, his view that history is more complicated than we think, and his disregard for political divisions (he commented that he was thrilled to see Laura Bush in his audience the last time he spoke at the festival). Toward the end of his talk, he declared his belief that "What God wants to happen, will happen," and gestured. At the moment, the rain, which had been slowing, came to a stop! I don't know about any higher meaning, but McBride has impeccable timing.

Having read and enjoyed his memoir, The Color of Water, in high school I was interested to hear McBride speak at the festival. I came away even more intrigued and excited to read his new book, The Good Lord Bird. During his talk, he mentioned that this book is not the place to look for accurate history, he's trying to get people interested and get them to laugh. Plenty of books have been written about the serious abuses of slavery, he said. You won't find that in his book. He mentioned that he's come a long way since he wrote The Color of Water, which he's best-known for. The Good Lord Bird, he says, is his "best book so far" and he had fun writing it. It helped him, he said, through an "incredibly painful divorce."

McBride gave an especially mellifluous and dialect-infused reading from the book's first chapter. The Good Lord Bird is the story of Onion Shackleford, a young black boy who becomes attached to John Brown's posse in the 1850s. Except that John Brown thinks Onion is a girl and all manner of other hijinks and misunderstandings ensue against the backdrop of pre-Civil War America and Brown's own violent style of justice. McBride said he thinks that Brown is misunderstood, and so is how slavery was regarded in the 1850s in general. Apparently the book includes a parodic portrait of Frederick Douglass, but McBride declares it's all in good fun and he respects Douglass and his work as well.

So far, The Good Lord Bird is not disappointing, except that I can't have James McBride to read me every line!

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