Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird – so rare and beautiful that should anyone be fortunate to see one, they immediately exclaimed ‘Good Lord!’  - was a member of the woodpecker family in mid- 19th century America.  It was also adopted as a good omen by Captain John Brown, fanatical anti-slavery campaigner and founder of a ragtag ‘army’ formed to bring freedom by fair means or foul to the Hapless Negro.  Brown was absolutely certain of the righteousness of his cause and its eventual success because God was on his side;  God directed his every thought and deed:  even if it involved theft and murder, the noble end justified the basest means - which brings me to reflect that if Captain Brown had been born in medieval times he would have been canonised, as so many Catholic saints were, their piety and martyrdom overshadowing any dark deeds committed in furthering their Great Work.
In Mr McBride’s superb story of Brown’s last violent attack against the evils of slavery he recreates Brown’s strength and power – and madness, as seen through the eyes of Henry, a negro child kidnapped/freed by Brown from a lowly tavern in Kansas.  Because of his small build Henry is immediately mistaken for a girl and christened Henrietta, and because he is a shrewd, clever little boy he decides that it would be politic to keep up with the charade, for these wild-eyed abolitionists are touchy varmints, some frighteningly ugly and all armed to the teeth.  He wants to go home, home to his master, Dutch Henry!  Dutch wasn’t so bad as slave owners go;  Henry always got fed and had a place to sleep.  Being free with Captain Brown is not half so secure;  most of the time The Old Man’s fellow zealots do not eat unless they can find something to hunt or steal, and winter is coming on.  Sifting through peoples’ garbage for scraps is not uncommon.  Henry plans to flee back to slavery and a steady diet as soon as possible but true to form, plans and circumstances inevitably change.
Henry’s reluctant adventures with The Old Man and a host of wonderful supporting players are uproarious and unforgettable, especially as he falls in lust not once but twice, and has increasing difficulty disguising the very obvious fact that ‘the sap is rising’.
He goes on a tour of the northeastern cities with The Old Man to raise funds for The War on Slavery and is amazed at the outrage and disgust that good folk feel towards the bondage of the Negro, but what puzzles him most is that ‘everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.’  His brothers in the Free Northern States are conspicuous by their absence, their reluctance to be involved.
As all students of American history will know, John Brown eventually planned his ill-fated war against slavery by attacking the Armoury at Harper’s Ferry Virginia with a view to taking weapons and hostages, then fleeing with hundreds of ‘freed’ negroes to the Allegheny mountains which he considered impregnable against attack because of steep, narrow passes that needed fewer men to defend.
And as history tells us, he failed mightily, in spite of the nobility of his motives and the greatness of his cause:  his ‘negro army’ never materialised, thanks to inept planning, procrastination and misunderstanding.  His raid on the Armoury at Harper’s Ferry brought about the deaths of many, including his own by hanging on December 2 1859 – but not before he passed on his Good Lord bird feather to Henry before his death, firmly convinced that it was still an omen of good things to come for the Negro, if not now, then in the future.  And he was right:  within a year, the American Civil War had started.  The Cause was joined.  Emancipation was four years distant.
Mr McBride has proved in previous works his literary worth:  in ‘The Good Lord Bird’ he shows yet again his prodigious writing skills, breathing wonderful life into characters and events that fractured and changed a great nation.  Madman, hero, Saint:  John Brown’s body lays a-mouldering in the grave, but his truth still marches on.  Hallilujah!  This is a great book.

A Man of his Own, by Susan Wilson

Ms Wilson’s story begins with a great quotation from Corey Ford:
 ‘ Every dog should have a man of his own.  There is nothing like a well-behaved person around the house to spread the dog’s blanket for him, or bring him his supper when he comes home man-tired at night.’
Amen to that!  Ms Wilson must love dogs very much – she seems to specialise in books that involve our Best Animal Friend (see November 2010 review below). As every dog owner knows, they can have no truer friend, no ally more staunch, and no pet to love them with more selflessness than a dog. This story demonstrates beautifully the vital connection between man and canine and the bond formed between an aspiring baseball pitcher and a stray puppy he found at the back of a tavern in 1938, and his inability to turn his back on his new responsibility.  Rick Stanton manages to further his baseball career, look after his new friend Pax and meet his future beloved human companion, Francesca.  Life is happy indeed for all three – until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 and the United States declares war on Japan and the Axis powers. The world has intervened in the Stanton’s lives, irrevocably changing their carefully laid plans and goals – Rick is drafted into the Army, and Francesca goes to work in a wire factory for everyone must ‘do their bit’. Even Pax is volunteered for duty as a War Dog after Francesca sees a magazine advertisement for intelligent pets to be considered for the newly formed K-9 force:  the right candidates will be used as scouts, casualty dogs, messengers and sentries in the theatre of war and will be returned home to their owners at the end of the war – if they survive.
Rick fights his war with courage and fortitude but pays a terrible price in the defense of his country:  his dream of being opening pitcher for the Boston Braves will never be realised for he sustains terrible wounds in a German ambush;  his injuries bring him home but destroy forever he and his wife’s dreams of having a family.
Pax the War Dog also returns home – with his handler, a young man who has never had anything or anyone to love in his short life until he entered the army and applied to be a dog handler:  Keller Nicholson is saddled with the task of returning his beloved Pax to the dog’s owners – he toys with the idea of just running off with Pax, his devoted companion, but that would be dishonourable:  he must see the Stantons and inform them that he needs the dog more than they do.  Until he meets them, and realises that their need for Pax is greater than his own.  Rick is a paraplegic;  his pitching arm has been blown off and he is plunged into depression;  Francesca is valiantly trying to be Supercaregiver but is not physically equipped for the task;  Keller cannot bear to leave Pax, so suggests that he could do the ‘heavy lifting’ of Rick that Francesca cannot:  the ideal solution, one would think.  The Stantons gain an aide and Keller gets to stay with his beloved canine partner.  A win-win situation.
But it isn’t.  Ms Wilson charts the waters of the psychological horrors of war with great skill;  her characters are always credible, and while her coverage of the war is sketchy (to say the least!) her account of the terrible, lasting damage that war inflicts on those at home as well as those who fight is poignant and real.  For want of a better description, this novel is a real heartwarmer, and I defy anyone not to shed a tear at the end.

ONE GOOD DOG, by Susan Wilson

I have been reading a lot of very mediocre stuff lately;  consequently it was a pleasure, a DELIGHT, to come across this lovely story by Susan Wilson.  This is her sixth novel and the first I have read – it’s strongly reminiscent of Garth Stein’s wonderful ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ in that part of the story is narrated by the Good Dog of the title, but there the similarity ends, for Chance is very different to Stein’s Enzo;  in fact he fancies himself as a bit of a dude, an ex-fighting dog and a mighty street warrior with pit-bull ancestry  – until he ends up in the pound on Death Row.  He is rescued, albeit reluctantly, by Adam March, who because of a careless promise he made, needs to find a dog as a substitute pet for a homeless man he doles out lunch to everyday  at a shelter for indigents.  Adam, by his own standards has hit the bottom of the barrel, too:  he is a former top executive of a huge corporation who loses everything –carefully sculpted wife, spoilt daughter, several homes, the bulk of his money and social status – when he strikes his P.A in a fit of uncontrollable rage. He is sentenced by a spectacularly unsympathetic judge to a year’s community service at the shelter.  ‘You’re an arrogant bastard who needs to learn some humility’, says the judge, and this is what this book is about:  learning to be humble, learning to redeem oneself, learning to make real friends, and learning to love again.  It’s definitely a feel-good novel and in the hands of a lesser author these themes would seem chintzy and old-hat, but Ms Wilson’s considerable writing talents chronicle Chance and Adam’s experiences together in entirely credible fashion.  Highly recommended.              

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