A state of disunion — America on the brink of Civil War
Reading “The Good Lord Bird,” I kept hearing a voice in my head, but couldn’t figure out who it was. Then it hit me: It was Huckleberry Finn. The voice of Henry Shackleford, the young slave who runs with John Brown, is so original and full of life, it made me think of old Huck. Young, outrageous and brave – you could say that of both Huck and Henry. And both novels chronicle the fraught events leading up to and including America’s Civil War, one of our country’s great tragedies and one that still haunts us today.
“True Grit” by Charles Portis is set right after the Civil War, but I was reminded of it this week because Henry Shackleford’s voice in “The Good Lord Bird” owes something to Mattie Ross, the brave 14-year-old who sets out to avenge her father’s death with help from Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed drunk and the toughest U.S. Marshall in the Indian Territory. The area is rife with hard feelings over the war and violent outbursts. Like Henry and John Brown or Huck Finn and Jim, Mattie and Rooster represent an irresistible contrast of untested youth and battered experience.
In Speer Morgan’s 1979 novel, “Belle Starr,” the title character refers to “Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws” — one of the greatest women brigands in history. Starr got her start during the same Missouri-Kansas turmoil that McBride describes in the early parts of “The Good Lord Bird.”
The pro-Confederate raiding parties that attacked pro-Union farmers before the war became bands of guerrilla soldiers. Then, post-war, they became infamous as outlaws. Some, like Frank and Jessie James and Cole Younger, were criminals, but their escapades were followed avidly by newspaper readers at the time.
And Belle? She eventually became an administrator of sorts for a whole clan of outlaws, organizing stashes of booty stolen by cattle rustlers and horse thieves. She was a crack shot and favored riding sidesaddle in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat, with matching pistols as accessories. Morgan grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a lot of outlaws ended up before Judge Robert Parker, the “Hanging Judge,” with predictable results.
From the ungodly to the godly, I want to mention one of my favorite novels of all time: Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” This book managed to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005, and deserved both.
“Gilead” is narrated by John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister in a small Iowa town who is looking back at his life; it’s a sort of letter to a son he had late in life.
Much of the novel is taken up by Ames’ recollections of his father and grandfather, both ministers as well. But his father was a Christian pacifist and his grandfather a radical abolitionist who carried out guerrilla actions with John Brown. This created a great division between the two; Robinson writes profoundly about using violence in the service of a cause, even if it’s a mission of moral urgency like eliminating slavery.
Speaking of fathers, sons and John Brown, there’s a novel that encompasses all three – the astonishingly versatile Russell Banks’ novel “Cloudsplitter.”
“Cloudsplitter” is narrated by Brown’s son Owen. Banks tried to make clear that “Cloudsplitter” was a novel and that he altered a number of things about John Brown’s life. One way he does this is to make Owen Brown an unreliable narrator; you never know whether he’s telling the truth or not. As a novel, “Cloudsplitter” was widely praised for its insights into how a man’s obsession can affect his family, as Brown uses the Bible to justify everything from complete, domineering control over his wife and children to the violent overthrow of the institution of slavery. Brown’s domination of his family was its own form of slavery, and his penchant for violence would have enduring effects on his sons and daughters.