Monday, October 13, 2014

Changing history, refining character, winning the story

Last week in my historical fiction workshop class we were discussing the second half of one of the model novels I assigned them: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  Virtually to a person, the class loved the book: its narrator, his dialect, the humorous situations, the seeming fidelity to the time period, the insight into crucial historical figures (e.g., John BrownFrederick DouglassHarriet Tubman) and an event (the raid on Harper's Ferry) that proved to be one of the most significant catalysts for the Civil War.  But what proved especially interesting to the class, and significant to me as a writer, is the extent to which McBride gently--or not so gently--toyed with historical facts in order to reinforce the characterizations that he was consciously trying to establish.

Before we begin, the obvious needs to stated: John Brown's reputation has been pretty low for a pretty long time.  There have been some recent efforts to revise our inherited notions about him and his raid, but--and the comments of my students bore this out--our general understanding of the man is that he was violent, self-righteous, and humorless; a religious zealot on the order of a terrorist; and that his plan to take the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and lead a slave rebellion was the height of lunacy.  Guaranteed to fail.  It's safe to say that James McBride doesn't--and never did--see Brown this way.  In fact, he dedicates the book to the man and to all who have helped keep Brown's memory alive.  In interviews, McBride is not afraid to admit that he regards John Brown as one of his personal heroes.

The challenge for McBride as an historical novelist, therefore, is to show John Brown and his failed raid in a way that does not repel a reader inclined to be suspicious of the man.  The challenge is to find a way to lead such a reader into the narrative and keep him there.  One immediately apparent way is his choice of a narrator.  McBride doesn't even consider having Brown tell his own story.  Instead, the job of narrating falls to Henry Shackleford.  Henry is a fictional creation, a character who when he knew Brown and was drawn into the events at Harper's Ferry was a young boy, barely an adolescent.  (He ages from roughly 12 to 15 over the course of the novel.)  Henry, or "Onion" as Brown calls him, is funny, honest, and salty.  He's a fantastic narrator, one whose living situation--he is made to dress like a girl and tries to fool everyone, white and black alike, about his real gender--is not exactly original but is handled in a thoroughly entertaining manner by McBride.  With the Onion narrating one can't help but listen to the story of John Brown.  

But what's more revealing, and more instructive, are the many subtle and not so subtle ways that McBride alters the historical record in order to make Brown more sympathetic, his character more in keeping with the gruff and loopy but good-hearted and uniquely likeable "Old Man" that McBride tries to establish.  Whereas in real life, Brown was the one making decisions and making mistakes, in the novel Brown is seen in many separate instances as the victim of others' wrongheaded choices or lapses in duty or outright criminality.  In the book he trusts people too much and seems convinced people will do the right thing when given the choice to.  One can't help but admire and even love a person like that, even as his trust and high opinion of others leads him into personal disaster.   Without doubt, Onion loves John Brown by book's end, he would do practically anything for the old coot.  But, again, this depiction is the result of some very cagy nudging of and yanking on the historical record.   For instance,  in one riveting chapter, Brown, after many weeks of exhausting fundraising among abolitionists groups on the east coast, turns over all the money he has raised to an Englishman named Hugh Forbes.  Forbes promises to meet up with Brown in Iowa, where Brown's army is quartered, and train Brown's men as only a professional soldier can.   Brown is ecstatic at this development, on fire with optimism, convinced that Forbe's aid will be the difference between his men being a ragged militia and an effective, fighting army.  In the novel, Forbes walks off with Brown's money and never shows up in Iowa.  Poor Brown, one thinks, how could he have been so trusting, and what is he going to do for money now?  Well, in real life too there was an Englishman named Hugh Forbes who Brown enlisted to train his men.   That Forbes did go to Iowa, and did try to train the men.  In fact he stayed on the job for three months.  He only left because Brown was not paying him his promised salary and Brown was also meddling with Forbes's efforts.

In the book Brown sends one of his men ahead to Harpers Ferry to rent a large house for his army.  This man, Cook, is a complete ne'er-do-well, a womanizer who will put his own desires above the needs of a group at any time.  Brown knows this, he's warned of it, and yet he believes in Cook enough to give him the important job anyway.  He also sends along Onion to keep an eye on Cook and, more importantly, recruit blacks for the rebellion.  As the reader expects, Cook royally botches his responsibilty, renting a house that is in such a terrible location (in order to be near a buxom working girl) that the essential plan is compromised and must be critically altered.  Onion, meanwhile, mostly fails in his recruitment efforts and then also fails in what proves to be his singlemost important duty: to pass on a secret password to Brown's men, a password that will tell a large contingent of blacks, arriving on a train from Baltimore, that the attack is on.  Because Brown's men never receive the password, and thus have none to give, the blacks turn away (as Onion had been warned they would).  They don't join the rebellion, leaving Brown and his men to face the army of the U.S. government alone.  In real life, Brown rented the house himself, and the failure to recruit a sufficient number of black men for his army lay in the unfeasibility of the plan itself.  

These are just a couple examples of the many historical alterations rendered by McBride.  I should say that in several matters McBride does stay true to what events happened and when; also to the names of principal historical figures.  It's not like he's just rewriting history out of whole cloth.  No, he's far more strategic and artful than that: bending facts here and there to color impressions.  One more example, this involving Frederick Douglass.  The renowned abolitionist spokesman and former slave was of course the most respected and listened to black voice at the time.  And Brown did indeed know Frederick Douglass and tried to enlist his moral support for the Harpers Ferry raid.  In the book, as in real life, Douglass does not support the raid.  He thinks it is suicidal and says so.  But what in real life comes across as a cautious and reasonable--if not exactly heroic--calculation, is presented in the novel as an act of betrayal by a hypocritical, thin-skinned, dandified man who has forgotten where he came from.   Douglass is presented as having two wives at the same time--one white, one black--as well as shown trying to loosen up the young Onion with alcohol so he can have his way with "her," in his own house, with his wives only rooms away.

As several students pointed out, despite Douglass's idealistic fervor in support of freeing the Negro, in the novel he has no trouble "enslaving" women to his desires, keeping them essentially as chattel.  Crucially, in The Good Lord Bird only slaves-- both men and women--are able to see immediately into Onion's true nature.  It's the whites and fancy, free negroes who are fooled (constantly) by his dress and by his smooth, young, mulatto face.   The fact that Douglass cannot tell that Onion is really a boy tells you exactly on which side of the divide McBride wants to set the great orator.  (In contrast, at novel's end we find out that Brown knew all along that Onion was a boy.) Through the voice of Onion, McBride ridicules Douglass as a man who just likes to hear himself talk, who won't ever really risk anything, even for the sake of the Negro, and who so can't handle liquor that he gets drunk under the table by a 14-year-old.  In real life, Douglass was never married to two woman at the same time.  He took a second wife only after his first died (as many widowers do).  He was actually an impassioned advocate for women's suffrage, speaking at the Seneca Falls Convention and at one point even serving as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull, the presidential nominee of the Equal Rights Party ticket.  And since Onion is a complete fiction, we can't say whether or not Douglass was able to recognize 14 year-old-boys disguised as girls. 

I hope this discussion does not make it sound like I'm criticizing McBride.  Far from it.  Instead I am trying to suggest (once again) the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The latter uses history--as faithfully as possible--but finally the historical fiction must be  committed to story and character above all else.  If it wants to succeed in the eyes of a reader, that is; if it wants to earn a reader's love and admiration.  Even if that means winking at the historical record and giving that record a conscious, cagy twist.  


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