The Good Lord Bird
  • March 28, 2014


  • James McBride

    1The Good Lord Bird
    Z2Life After Life

    Kate Atkinson

  • Books provided by

Life After Life

Héctor Tobar: So it’s down to two, unorthodox historical novels. Watching the same character die repeatedly in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life offered many pleasures. But after seeing “darkness fall” over Ursula repeatedly, and her subsequent resurrections, it felt like a book about the power of the writer as much as anything else. James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird took many satirical liberties and besmirched the name of Frederick Douglass, but the story of a slave boy in drag joining John Brown’s abolitionist army was more energetic, pointed, and rooted in historical truths, in this writer’s opinion.

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Greg Walklin: Upon advancing The Good Lord Bird, I hoped that it would be read and judged again and again. I am surprised (pleasantly) to get my wish. Fortunately—for my sanity—this decision required none of my quarterfinals agony. Built on a brilliant idea, Life After Life’s structure is supremely inventive, and flashes are exquisite. But it’s threadbare. Its characters feel like plot devices, and the story’s intentional repetitions just end up demonstrating a much too arbitrary plot: It gave me déjà vu, in other words, for all the wrong reasons. It can’t pluck a feather from The Good Lord Bird.

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Jane Hu: There is a kind of voracious reading that happens between the ages of seven and 17 that I thought was reserved only for, well, children. Sometimes I wonder if all my reading since has been a secret attempt to get close to that experience of sustained absorption. To have a book become your entire world so effortlessly is a precious ability that rarely occurs during the exhaustion and distraction of adulthood. SOB. I was the last judge to carry The Good Lord Bird to this championship round, and I stand by my assertion that it is a tremendous novel, but Life After Life is my “Single Ladies.” It’s one of the best self-obsessively formal novels of all time. How did Atkinson manage to craft a story so simultaneously cognitive and visceral (there’s a parenthetical that made me burst into tears)? Atkinson overrides any jaded, ironic, post-post-whatever take on the world: Just when you think, “Been there, done that,” Life After Life surprises you with the possibility (nay, hope!) that, just maybe, you haven’t.

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Geraldine Brooks: I had my say on Atkinson in the playoff round, so I will merely summarize here: I liked the middle bit.

John Brown, the great dark Rorschach blot of the American conscience, seemed an unlikely, maybe even un-PC vehicle for humor. But McBride pulls it off. His effervescent young narrator is pitch-perfect and wholly original. There are pitfalls to McBride’s irreverent approach—he’s sacrificed much of the tension of Brown’s drama, as potently deployed by Russell Banks in Cloudsplitter and (ahem) Tony Horwitz in Midnight Rising. Even with that caveat, my choice: the voice. Bird gets Rooster.

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John Freeman: For years we have waited for a response to William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. So long, in fact, that we forgot we were waiting. The Good Lord Bird sings like a bird set free, with a voice that ought to join Huck Finn, the narrators of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, and Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao as a voice which is here to tell us who we are in music so lovely we almost forget it was born in terrible pain. It’s an alarmingly beautiful book.

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Rachel Fershleiser: The Good Lord Bird is a hell of an achievement—a witty, rollicking American adventure about our despicable, dead-serious history. But in Life After Life, I got my book about female inner worlds. These characters face rape, abortion, abusive marriages, motherhood—all the inescapable strictures of a woman’s existence even as she has a freedom beyond imagining. Amid the extraordinary premise, it’s the fundamentally ordinary that is so beautiful: love for a brother, sharing secrets with a friend, seizing or shirking opportunities. Ultimately the book is a serenity prayer—a hymn to what we cannot change, what we can, and how we learn the difference.

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John Darnielle: I didn’t finish Life After Life. I didn’t finish it because I did not like it at all. I came to dread picking it up. I feel bad about this: You can tell from the blurbs on the jacket alone that this is a book that has enriched people’s lives. They love it. I didn’t.

When I don’t dig something, I try to refrain from blaming the object of my scrutiny. I just assume we have different interests. I don’t think of my taste as some yardstick of excellence more reliable than anybody else’s, or consider it exemplary. I can see how a person might really enjoy the recurring-and-building structure of Life After Life; I can imagine someone growing more and more invested in Ursula, whose first death occurs right after her birth and whose final death will involve an attempt on Hitler’s life. I can see how a person might regard ongoing variations on the phrase “darkness fell” in the recurring death scenes as close-up magic: deft, masterful shifts of authorial focus. I’m not that person.

The Good Lord Bird I’ve already talked about: I found it wholly engaging from beginning to end. It gets the nod from me because it was the one I liked.

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John McElwee: What a rich, thrilling, frustrating book The Good Lord Bird is, bursting with hokum and history and terror. It made me realize my middle-school education might have been uncomfortably war-of-northern-aggression-slanted. But there are blind spots: This story about a boy in a dress hardly touches gender. It’s safe in the brilliant glare of its voice. Life After Life is oversweet and mannered, but it’s sure far-reaching—a work of multiplicity, potentiality. Think Woolf’s Orlando, or “Once in a Lifetime.” I hate to blame a book for being narrow on one of humanity’s most egregious failings, but I’m going with excess over dearth.

The Good Lord Bird Life After Life
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John Green: It pains me to pick against the excellent Life After Life again, but I feel I must. It may be that as an American I am biased toward American stories, but The Good Lord Bird is just so brilliant. It had everything I want in a novel and left me feeling both transported and transformed—the last book I remember loving so thoroughly was The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the 2013 Rooster.

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Lydia Kiesling: Anything that hints at a Mitford lineage is catnip to me, and I raced through Life After Life with great enthusiasm. But while I spent my quarterfinal judgment dithering about whether it is OK to favor a book just because it is more in keeping with one’s taste, I am compelled here not to pick the book that I liked more. The earth didn’t move when I read The Good Lord Bird, but its execution is masterly and airtight, to the extent that Atkinson’s novel seems a bit…baggy by comparison. I hereby exercise my judgely right to move the goalposts.

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Mat Johnson: I don’t like books that make you restart the narrative repeatedly; fuck a prologue. Life After Life had me restarting the entire world throughout its many pages, but I loved it for that because it made me care about the characters, the world, and the many pathways along which all lives can meander. The Good Lord Bird knows exactly who its readers are, and gives them exactly what they want. It has some truly funny scenes, as well. But between the two, Life After Life was the one I hated to put down and kept finding myself picking up.

The Good Lord Bird Life After Life
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Roxane Gay: I admired the ambition of both Life After Life and The Good Lord Bird. In Life After Life, I loved the delicacy and precision of language and the overall idea but at times, the story flagged and I wanted something more satisfying from the novel than I received. Of The Good Lord Bird, I initially thought, “Oh man, another slavery book.” I was also perturbed by how too often, McBride seemed terribly amused with his own humor to the detriment of the story he was telling. That said, The Good Lord Bird is so imaginative and passionate. The prose is vivid and full of energy. I loved Henry’s story and his wit and ferocious capacity for survival, and that made it easy for this book to win the 2014 Rooster.

The Good Lord Bird Life After Life
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Jami Attenberg: The heart is only capable of so much love. You’d think it would be full of endless admiration, but the world is much smaller than we realize, and our hearts act accordingly. Thus, I liked, but did not love, both of these books. Life After Life was formally inventive, witty, and believable, but ultimately felt overly long and repetitive. The Good Lord Bird entertained me and moved quickly, but its noisiness and razzle dazzle blocked my connection to its emotional stakes. I enjoyed Life After Life more—the puzzle of it, and the evolution of Ursula—and that is my pick.

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Roger D. Hodge: Life After Life is elegant and clever, but my vote goes to The Good Lord Bird, which presents us with the central drama of American history, enacted in the tragicomedy of Captain John Brown, the Don Quixote of abolitionism. In 1859, Henry David Thoreau foresaw a day when Americans would finally be at liberty to weep over John Brown’s body, when we would be equal to his flawed example and able to take our revenge for the crimes of slavery. James McBride has written a brilliant answer to that challenge.

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Sarah Schulman: Applying death to the living and life to the dead is a common preoccupation. The narcissists are outraged at the thought of never having been born. The religious make do with fate. That Atkinson approaches this formally is intriguing. And yet, I never had the revelation that a structural experiment aims to provoke. Perhaps it was the overly familiar British middle-class crisis: abortion, anti-Semitism, singlehood, and even worse…marriage. While she finds some searing emotional moments that McBride lacks, ultimately I preferred his bumpy ride through unfamiliar terrain, which while shallow in places, was never neat.

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Lizzie Skurnick: Though I’m pretty sure this did not actually happen, if you told Kate Atkinson and James McBride, “Write a historical novel about a race-obsessed political figure who plunges his nation into a bloody war that will inexorably change their time and, indeed, ours, through the eyes of a girl, sort of, with guns” you might get Life After Life and The Good Lord Bird. The former, a relief of a historical novel, adores and eviscerates John Brown in equal measure on his bumbling, pivotal trek to Harper’s Ferry. (AND AHEM ATTENTION FLAP-COPY WRITER JOHN BROWN IS NOT ONE OF THE “MOST FORGOTTEN CHARACTERS IN AMERICAN HISTORY.”) Its chronicler, young, cross-dressed Onion is, improbably, one of the more illuminating narrators on slavery and abolition. (It does not hurt that he is unintentionally piss-yourself funny.) But Atkinson’s Ursula Todd is also titanic: She is psychic, dies repeatedly, and both lives and dies during the Blitz (SA-WOON) in Atkinson’s sneaky add-a-version text. (And yes, watching, as a recent first-time mother, a child die over and over in new horrible ways was a beautifully multifaceted kind of torture.) I loved both these books, their moods and mastery, and made no progress deciding between them as a critic. So I became my true self: a book-pusher. I would (and have) pressed the entirety of Atkinson on somebody, but The Good Lord Bird is the one I would press alone, saying “This. Read this one.”

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Jeff Martin: Honestly, I had this thing all but decided in my mind. I knew that no book could or would dislodge the hold that Life After Life had on me. When James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird showed up in the mail with its chest puffed out and a shiny National Book Award sticker almost yelling at me from the upper left corner of the cover, I was dubious. Man, was I wrong. The Good Lord Bird is better than I ever expected, and more powerful due to my low expectations. Beyond that, it’s the rare social statement novel that’s both “important” and endlessly entertaining.

That said, in the days after reading it, I didn’t feel the desire to read it again. In fact, all I wanted to do was start Life After Life again. And again. And again.

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Update: James McBride responds to the news of his 2014 Tournament of Books win: “It is an honor and a privilege to be among so many fantastic writers and readers. I actually think I know a guy who could use that rooster.” We’re in discussions with James about hooking up his friend with a rooster from a nearby animal shelter.

John: A spirited matchup, but The Good Lord Bird adds a Rooster to its trophy case to go along with that National Book Award. In hindsight, its closest scrape might’ve been in the opening round, but even Judge Schulman, who seemed only lukewarm to it that time around, gave the nod to McBride in the final.

Kevin: I’m not surprised by the verdict, although I might be a little surprised it was so one-sided. Life After Life is a powerful reading experience and I wonder if a less American jury might have leaned more toward Atkinson. I think The Good Lord Bird presupposes at least a passing familiarity with John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and maybe even an internalization of slavery as America’s original sin. Would I have been as taken by an equally good novel set during the Crimean War (the first one, I mean, not the one we’re starting in June)? I almost guarantee I would not be.

In the final bit of ToBX official business, congratulations to Karl S., randomly selected from everyone who had the winning prediction in yesterday’s comments. We forgot to mention yesterday that in addition to the Field Notes prize package (the Shelterwood notebooks are amazing, by the way), we will also send Karl a signed copy of my novella-length memoir, A Drive Into the Gap, which was published last year by Field Notes Brand Books. Karl, please email with your contact info.

John: Out of curiosity, I compared the NBA and Pulitzer winners for every year since the NBA’s inception in 1952. There were some pretty fun things to see. Like in 1953, Ralph Ellison won the NBA for Invisible Man, while Hemingway took the Pulitzer for Old Man and the Sea. In 1961, when To Kill a Mockingbird was winning the Pulitzer, The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter won the NBA.

The NBA/Pulitzer double winners are A Fable by William Faulkner (1955), Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter (1966), The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (1967), Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike (1982), The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983), and The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (NBA: 1993, Pulitzer: 1994).

There has been no double since ’93-’94, which obviously means no double in the history of our Tournament, which makes McBride a contender for the first triple crown—NBA, Rooster, Pulitzer—in history.

Field NotesReceive a free Tournament of Books Memo Book with purchase. While supplies last, from Field Notes Brand.

But will it win? In comparing the NBA and Pulitzer in recent years, there isn’t even much overlap among the finalists, as though the different committees are focused on entirely different pools of contenders.

I claim to have mystical book-related powers, so I’m going to put them on the line and declare that the Pulitzer winner is going to be All That Is by James Salter. I’m thinking it’s going to be a lifetime achievement thing.

Either that, or they’ll pick a book from a small publisher that’s on no one’s radar, like Tinkers from 2010. Either way, I’m going to guess that The Good Lord Bird’s streak of picking up hardware ends with our little exercise.

Kevin: Perhaps. But I think that speculation invites the question, “Why has the ToB been fairly good at picking recent Pulitzer winners in the first place?” I suppose the easiest answer is simply that The Road, A Mercy, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and The Orphan Master’s Son are all really good books whose excellence was evident to two separate juries. As you point out, The Good Lord Bird passed through five separate judgments in the ToB without any serious hurdles, and it is clearly the kind of book that can flirt with a committee. I’ll pose a different question: If The Good Lord Bird does not win the Pulitzer, will the prize go to another book on this list? Before the ToB I thought there were several candidates here. Now that I have listened to so much discussion about each of them, I’m not sure any of the books considered here would beat McBride’s straight-up with the Pulitzer party people. We’ll find out in a few weeks.

John: So, I promised that I’d try to compile an officially unofficial, purely personal, not-at-all-meaningful “watchlist” for ToBXI. These are books that came or will come out this year that have gotten on my radar for one reason or another. I make no claims, warranties, or guarantees for this list. It’s a doozy.

  • Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. by Noah Cicero
  • The Brunist the Day of Wrath by Robert Coover
  • Thirty Girls by Susan Minot
  • The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  • The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • Mannequin Girl by Ellen Litman
  • Missing You by Harlan Coben
  • Orfeo by Richard Powers
  • The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne
  • Hidden by Catherine McKenzie
  • Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
  • The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
  • The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky
  • Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo
  • Delicious by Ruth Reichl
  • Magnificent Vibration by Rick Springfield
  • Married Life by David Vogel
  • Bellwether Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
  • Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston
  • A Moveable Famine by John Skoyles
  • The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner
  • The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  • We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
  • All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
  • I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum
  • The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger
  • No Country by Kalyan Ray
  • Abroad by Katie Crouch
  • All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
  • Losing in Gainesville by Brian Costello
  • The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes
  • A Life in Men by Gina Frangello
  • Made to Break by D. Foy
  • The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas
  • Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol
  • The Myth of Solid Ground by Stephanie Kegan
  • Road Ends by Mary Lawson
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
  • Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
  • Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
  • Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy
  • When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney
  • Three Bargains by Tania Malik
  • Before, During, After by Richard Bausch
  • Henna House by Nomi Eve
  • Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
  • The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • An Italian Wife by Ann Hood
  • Wittgenstein Jr. by Lars Iyer
  • Hold the Dark by William Giraldi
  • Ballroom by Alice Simpson
  • The Ambassadors by George Lerner
  • Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott
  • The High Divide by Lin Enger
  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • Quartet for the End of Time by Johanna Skibsrud
  • Brood by Chase Novak
  • Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett
  • Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
  • The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke
  • Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
  • The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar
  • Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
  • Friendship by Emily Gould
  • Casebook by Mona Simpson
  • Off Course by Michelle Huneven
  • Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
  • My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
  • Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Kevin: I never try to compete with you on book-list making. Instead, observations:

This is the year we could finally get an answer to the question: “How bad would a Richard Ford/Frank Bascombe novel have to be that John and Kevin would not stab a guy to make sure it’s on the ToB shortlist?” This is the Star Wars franchise of the WMFUN. I can’t wait.

I doubt I will read Rick Springfield’s Magnificent Vibration, but I hope there’s a girl in it who watches her boyfriend specifically with her eyes.

I will definitely read Silence Once Begun. I would love to see Jesse Ball make the tourney one day. I think he’s just a hell of an interesting writer.

Also noted: Former ToB shortlisters Emma Donoghue, E. Lockhart, and Teju Cole. We have had many former competitors return as ToB judges, but I don’t think we have ever had a judge come back as a competitor. Former members of the Rooster jury with books on your watchlist include Emma Straub, Jennifer Weiner, and this year’s fabulous Roxane Gay.

John: I’d like to also give notice to a couple of books from TMN contributing writers who, for obvious reasons, aren’t eligible for the tourney, but would be major contenders otherwise: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See will hit stores in May, and Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night will be released this year at a date yet to be determined because he’s still in the process of making it awesomer.

Kevin: And allow me to shout from the ToB tower that you will be releasing a collection of short stories in September called Tough Day for the Army. The title track is one of the first John Warner stories I ever read, way back when we were kids obsessed with George Plimpton and Britney Spears, and it is still one of my favorites. Hilarious and weird, but totally accessible, too. One of the reasons I don’t write many short stories, frankly, is that I’ve read enough of yours to know how much I suck at it. Novels take longer, but short stories are harder to make great. You have made a lot of them great, and it will be exciting to see at least a handful of them bound together with glue.

John: On the surface this is a competition, but the reality is that it’s more like a big sprawling conversation, and there are lots of people who make that possible. Thanks to Tournament sponsors Field Notes and Powell’s, and our media partner Tumblr. Thanks to Tournament wheel greasers Rosecrans Baldwin, Nozlee Samadzadeh, and Andrew Womack, who have spent all year doing work to make this happen. Thanks to our judges. Thanks to our competitors. Thanks to everyone who has talked up and tweeted out and otherwise spread the word.

Kevin: Thanks so, so much to everyone who follows the ToB—from our beloved commentariat (who truly make this the greatest 18-day book discussion on all the internets), to the thousands of folks who check in silently every day for word-nerd-y sustenance. Until next spring, we will be watching you with our eyes, and loving you with our bodies, and holding you with our arms, late, late at night, I just know it.

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