What struck me the most about The Good Lord Bird was McBride’s how natural the book felt, despite its subject — because, whether it is slavery, the Holocaust, or any other tragic period in history, there is a very fine line between art and exploitation. The mix of humor, history, and great storytelling wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I cracked open the book for the first time, because when I think of slavery and the life of John Brown, the last thing I think about is laughter. I mention this to McBride, and he tells me, “I think the problem is that the language of history covers it with this whole blanket of slavery.” He continues, “I think the discourse around slavery is still pretty primitive,” citing the commonly seen example in which “the mean overseer or master shoots the black guy in the field. The poor black guy is whipped, he’s a slave for 12 years, they kidnap him.” McBride allows that “all of those things are true, but there are other elements of slavery that tell the story in even a deeper way than those we’ve heard about.”
McBride has found that deeper way to write about these things. Where The Color of Water is a story of an escaped slave that flirts with magical realism, The Good Lord Bird contains shades of William Faulkner and even Mark Twain. I even found myself comparing McBride’s book, oddly enough, to the films of Mel Brooks. While McBride isn’t necessarily working in the comic genre the way Brooks has throughout his legendary career, there is something similar in McBride’s work to the way Brooks, an American Jew who fought in the Second World War, dealt with something horrific like the Third Reich by finding the comedy in it.
McBride doesn’t make fun of slaves or slavery, but his book is undeniably humorous. John Brown remains convinced throughout the book that the novel’s protagonist is a girl, and that’s only part of the sense we get that Brown was a little off his rocker to begin with. In writing a humorous book about a serious topic with such aplomb, McBride has created his own strain of historical fiction. “Going after the deep violence is easy,” he points out. “I think the current surfeit of ‘slavery’ tomes —12 Years a Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s movie [Django Unchained], The Butler — are really crude and primitive, but they’re important.” Yet, without playing his material for cheap laughs, McBride has embraced a different tone. “I think humor is the way to tell a true story,” he says. “It’s the best way to get to the truth sometimes.”