WARNING: Use of the n-word below, in a socio-literary context. Please do not read if this will offend you.
32. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Everyone seems to be comparing The Good Lord Bird to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I will confess, when I first heard the voice of Onion Shackleford, I heard the echo of the earlier charmingly uneducated picaresque. But Onion is not just an uneducated young boy, nor just a young boy pretending to be a girl (who remembers that scene from Huck Finn?!?), he is a young boy performing both as a girl and as a Negro. And this brings something new to the performance of the novel.
McBride brings home an observation that seems like an aside in Twain. In Twain's day, he probably couldn't do more than allude to it obliquely, but McBride can spell it out to those to whom it may not occur.
There is a scene in Huck Finn where Huck makes up a story about a boat accident and a concerned lady asks if anyone has been killed. "No'm," Huck replies, then adds, "Just a nigger."
Those few words say so much. No one has been killed, just a nigger, who doesn't even count as a person. But in McBride, he elaborates on the view of that unnamed, fictional victim, how did the "nigger" feel about being a nigger? McBride writes as Onion:
"Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day...You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog, a shovel, or a horse." (343)
If you are treated and considered as just a thing, it changes your self-presentation. You are not free to be the complicated person that you are, but instead you take on this "Negro" persona, instead you become the thing. Or rather, you act the thing. But because the whole thing is an act, acting becomes second nature. This is where it becomes clear that Onion's disguise as a girl is not merely a gimmick, but a powerful metaphor (and comment on how forced shape-shifting creates liars and tricksters):
"I'd gotten used to living a lie-being a girl-it come to me this way: Being a Negro's a lie anyway. Nobody sees the real you." (318)
There is so much more I could say about The Good Lord Bird. The voice is exquisite. Every word is precisely placed. James McBride is correct in suggesting that this is his best novel, and I say this confidently without having read all the others. But while it is in conversation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it also speaks to Cervantes' Don Quixote, to Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, to many other novels about blackness and otherness and weirdness. It speaks to the history and legends surrounding John Brown, as well as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. It speaks to the truths and the lies that we tell each other today about race and gender and sexual orientation and being human. Above all, The Good Lord Bird is a novel that SPEAKS.