James McBride, who has written for National Geographic Magazine, won the National Book Award for fiction last night for his novel, The Good Lord Bird. McBride hadn’t prepared a speech because he didn’t think he would win—his competition included Thomas Pynchon and Jhumpa Lahiri—but he recounted how he lost his mother, his niece, and his marriage while he was writing the novel. “It was always nice,” he said, “to have somebody whose world I could fall into and follow him around and that was Onion Shackleford in The Good Lord Bird talking about a great American named John Brown.”
The Good Lord Bird follows the adventures of Henry Shackleford, known as Onion, who “claimed to have been the only Negro to survive the American outlaw John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859.” Onion survived as a girl because that’s what John Brown mistook him for, despite evidence to the contrary: “Whatever [Brown] believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not.” Brown comes down through history as a fiery abolitionist who was willing to die—and did—in the fight to end slavery, but McBride plays his escapades for laughs. Reviews of the novel in both the New York Times and the Washington Post likened McBride to Mark Twain for his humane humor and deft use of vernacular language.
McBride has long written about the porousness of race and culture. His first book, The Color of Water, is a memoir about growing up with a black father and a mother who would not admit she was white. “The reality of race,” he writes in his National Geographic story about the origins of hip hop, “is like shifting sand, dependent on time, place, circumstance, and who’s telling the history.” When McBride tells the history, people listen.