Author James McBride on Slavery, Humor and ‘Hee-Haw Chit Chat’ in ‘The Good Lord Bird’

James McBride talks to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about interpreting the structures of slavery in his new book “The Good Lord Bird.”

“I had to create something that would allow people room to laugh at things they can’t really talk about easily,” said author James McBride about his new book “The Good Lord Bird, set in pre-Civil War Kansas. “And that’s really the point of it, to give people space to laugh at everyone so they can see some of the truths inside these historical facts.”

“The Good Lord Bird” is the winner of this year’s National Book Award in fiction. It follows the battles between “slave state and free-state” forces in 1858, particularly the struggle of abolitionist John Brown. But the story isn’t your typical tale of slavery.

McBride chose to narrate the book through the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a young slave boy whose master gets in an altercation with Brown, who mistakes Henry for Henrietta. Passing as a young girl, Henry dons a dress and bonnet to survive and trails Brown’s crew through the historic raid on Harpers Ferry two years later.

The book is written in vernacular, or as McBride calls it “that hee-haw chit chat.”

“I love that old country talk. We still have a lot of Americans who talk like that, black and white … a lot of the old men in my family talk like that and I always wanted to put that in a narrative.”

“The Good Lord Bird” is McBride’s third novel. He is also the author of the bestselling memoir “The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother” and a touring saxophonist and song writer.

Above, you can watch the James McBride’s conversation with chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown for the broadcast.