Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
I loved James McBride's THE COLOR OF WATER, his memoir in which he explored his multi-racial roots and channeled the voice of his Jewish mother. I recommend it highly. It was inventive, moving and well-written. So I expected a lot from this novel, especially since it won the National Book Award in 2013. Perhaps I expected too much.
The framing for the novel is a strange tale of a man, now dead, who once worked in a church. After his death a narrative, which he apparently transcribed from tales told to him, was discovered and the rest of the book is that narrative.
The narrative tells the story of a young Henry Shackleford, an African-American boy, a slave, whose father is killed in front of him by the Abolitionist John Brown. Brown mistakes the boy for a girl for some reason and so he spends a good deal of the rest of the story wandering about the countryside in a dress, passing for a girl and meeting all sorts of rather stock characters in episodic fashion, some of it as Brown's captive, some of it on his own, until the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
From the beginning I had problems with the book since the framing was both unnecessary, and clumsy. The voice felt awkward and inauthentic. Some reviewers have compared the work to Twain's, but apart from vernacular and abundant use of the "n" word, I don't see it. It doesn't have the wit, nor the irony. I suspect McBride would have been better served by simply telling the story in a straightforward manner, either in the 1st or 3rd persons.
The other problem I had was how emotionally distant the narrative was. When Henry's father is butchered right in front him, for example, he is oddly unmoved -- a few tears, but then he moves on to the next episode in the tale, and that does not help the reader to connect with him, nor to care what happens to him.
John Brown is a fascinating episode is American history. For those interested, may I suggest Russel Banks' excellent novel -- Cloudsplitter. http://www.amazon.com/Cloudsplitter-A-Novel-Russell-Banks/dp/0060930861 about which Dr. Cornel West said, "Like our living literary giants Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon, Russell Banks is a great writer wrestling with the hidden secrets and explosive realities of this country."