Built in 1907 by Civil War Veteran Sam Dinsmoor, it is also the country’s oldest intact folk art complex. At times called Visionary or Outsider art, it displays an elaborate set of editorial cartoons in cement, or “modern civilization as I see it,” according to Dinsmoor. But then he also warns, “I am bughouse, good and proper, but not on religion, perpetual motion or any other fool thing that I cannot find out one thing about.”
I visited one November afternoon not long ago, having driven 500+ miles out of my way. Who, then, is more “bughouse”? It was more than worth the drive.
(These detours were inspired by John Beardsley’s wonderful Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists, covering 25 such environments world-wide, a majority in the U.S. While not situated close to the geographic borderlands, I decided that such artistic and spiritual creations are so far out of the mainstream, they reside in borderlands of the mind. Truly, outsider art.)
“Samuel Perry Dinsmoor was born on March 8, 1843, in Ohio. He served in the Civil War as a nurse in the Union Army. After the war, Dinsmoor returned to Ohio and soon joined the Masonic Lodge. Joining this organization was a significant development in his philosophical outlook on life…”
Quotations are from “Pictorial History of The Cabin Home in Garden of Eden” by S.P. Dinsmoor, reprinted by Friends of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, 2002
The Good Lord Bird is an example of an overhyped (National Book Award winner), deeply flawed contemporary title, which the PC-mavens must adore for it potential virtue-signaling, as I can’t think of another reason. This wreckage of a book is why I tend to avoid contemporary literature: the more lazy the thinking, the more it is lauded. The novel is a fictionalized account of John Brown leading up to the fateful raid at Harper’s Ferry, which many believe tipped the nation into civil war.
Our protagonist, Henry Shackleford, aka Henrietta, aka Onion, is a tween slave in Kansas suddenly freed during a John Brown raid, who is then swept up into the abolitionist crew, with which he has no real sympathy. Among other things, his father was killed during the raid.
John Brown, often called the Old Man by the narrator, mistakes Henry for a girl, a slave-era fiction that perpetuates until book end. (McBride encourages a facile parallel: of the black person’s/slave’s similar inability to be her/his true self.) In the midst of the raid’s confusion, it starts this way:
But the Old Man heard Pa say ‘Henry ain’t a,’ and took it to be ‘Henrietta,’ which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. [p.20]
(By book’s end, one has to wonder if the author and Brown have this truth-changing in common…)
The narrative and actual, tragic story is played for laughs throughout. Part I “Free Deeds (Kansas)” seems like one extended joke, on the Onion’s transgendering-for-survival. Tiresomely, the joke extends to the end.
In one memorable scene, Frederick Douglass is spoofed as a horny old buggerer after our young Henrietta’s tail:
Well, all that tinkering and squeezing and savaging made me right nervous, ‘specially since he was doing it his own self, squeezing and savaging my arse, working his hand down toward my mechanicals as he spoke the last, with his eyes all dewy, so I hopped to my feet.” [p.245]
John Brown, the erstwhile historical subject of the entire production, is also played for laughs. You see, he’s a obsessive Jesus-freak who prays at uproaring lengths (before, during, and after both battles and meals, often getting cold) and uproaringly gets his Bible verses all twisted and wrong.
Our Henrietta, who learns his letters on the sly during his several year captivity in Missouri (along the border of Slave and Free States), pokes fun at the tongue-twisted and Bible-befuddled Brown throughout – most memorably calling him “off his biscuit.” That is, until he comes to Jesus himself (a gunshot wedding, if you will, at Harper’s Ferry) and ends up idolizing the Old Man.
After troopsing his rag-tag band around the new territories for some time, the Old Man sets his sights back east, on the nation’s largest arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Onion records the distaste for the Old Man even in the Free States, where he is (correctly) seen as a loose cannon and murderer.
But by narrative’s end, Henrietta has come around mightily to the whole charade, claiming, “John Brown was a Christian man. A bit off his biscuit, but a better Christian you never saw.” (Really? Extra-judicial murder?) And, in the next paragraph, admits, “It [Harper’s Ferry] set the table for the war that was to come, is what it did, for nothing scared the South more than the idea of niggers running ‘round with guns and wanting to be free.” [p.450] It is generally believed that Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry radicalized the young nation’s divides, all but eliminating the potential for compromise or gradual transformation and “set the table” for over 700,000 deaths.
Unless you agree with Henry’s full conversion to the cause – at the end he likens Brown’s wrinkled countenance to “the face of God” and earlier on slips into calling God the “Old Man” – or the book’s tortured premise that John Brown is, OK, not God-like, but to be worshipped up there with Lincoln, then you might wish to give this book a pass.
Beside the hackeyed premise, on a written narrative level the book suffers from several defects. The extended jokes for one. Completely unnecessarily, it is twice as long as needed. The narrative voice is inconsistent and confusing. While a prologue sets up the narrative as a verbal history given, as a mature (103 year old) adult, to another member of the First United Negro Baptist Church of Wilmington, DE, the narrative voice starts out much like that of a tween or young teen. Only later do some more adult-like observations jar and distance the reader. The author can’t resist puns, such as “incog-Negro” [p.230], which seem more contemporary and clever than what the 103-year-old Henry would say in the earliest 20th century.
Finally, the title’s metaphoric bird undergoes some torturous transformations during the narrative. We are told the manuscript is found with a “rare feather from an ivory-billed woodpecker, a nearly extinct species,” presumably belonging to the Good Lord Bird of the title. It turns out the bird has magical properties to John Brown, who treats it reverentially, as a protecting spirit. Soon enough, these protective properties are transferred by Brown to the Onion, who becomes a good luck charm, a good omen child, to the outlaws. But, at the novel’s predictable end, the author has thrown the feather back on the Old Man’s back. Here in John Brown’s fictionalized words:
The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing get tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. [p.456]
In case it is not obvious, the metaphor of John Brown gnawing at the dead tree of Slavery is, two pages on, extended to a general observation on the need for lumber-jack revolutionaries, in this sighting over “a colored church”:
And up above the church, high above it, a strange black-and-white bird circled ‘round, looking for a tree to roost on, a bad tree, I expect, so he could alight upon it and get busy, so that it would someday fall and feed the others. [p.458]
[The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books (The Penguin Group), New York, paperback edition, 2013]
“Maine, along with Florida, is the most geographically isolated of the lower forty-eight, which may explain its agelessness. Although only the 11th largest, it feels massive by northeastern standards, and wild beyond this New Englander’s imagination, the wildness compounded by a sense of enormity – and isolation.” p.25, Borderlands USA
A family reunion led me back to the relatively busy mid-coast region of Sebasco, the water frigid, the weather wonderfully variable. [please hover over images for captions]
“It would take most of a week and well over one thousand miles – the length of all Central America – to partially ring Maine, one of the profound surprises of my trip.” p.26
Long heralded as the longest peaceful (since 1813 or so) border in the world, it also boasts unimaginable wilderness and a handful of wild, out-of-the-way National Parks. [please hover over images for captions]
Not long ago, dense forest was everywhere. As de Tocqueville wrote in his 1831 A Fortnight in the Wilderness:
If we had indeed only wanted to see forests, our hosts in Detroit would have been right in telling us that we need not go very far, for, a mile out of town, the road goes into the forest and never comes out of it.
Coastal Maine is like no other in the States. Austere. Cold. Foggy. Mega-tidal. The water in September is winteresque. I spent a weekend in Sebasco, south of West Bath, east of Casco Bay, with family, and recalled that Maine in its entirety was one of the greatest discoveries of my trip around the borderlands. It is the remotest and most different state of the East Coast – and feels very northern. [please hover over images for captions]
See the neglected northern border in its full glory. Shots supplement those in the Borderlands USA color ebook. [please hover over images for captions]