13 Sep Author Spotlight: James McBride
Written by Nick Philip, Adult Services Supervisor
James McBride has established himself as one of the great voices in 21st-century American literature. The son of a Black father and Jewish mother (whom he biographized in his 1996 work The Color of Water), he is acutely aware of the ideas surrounding mixed identity and writes heavily about the experiences of Americans of all backgrounds. His newest book, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, has just hit the shelves at PGTPL. Set in 1972, it takes readers to the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where the demographics mirror McBride’s heritage. After a skeleton is discovered at the bottom of a local well, the narrative follows the secrets and history of a large ensemble of the neighborhood’s fascinating residents. If you’re interested in exploring McBride’s back catalog, here’s a quick rundown of his fiction novels.
2013’s The Good Lord Bird was unquestionably the moment of McBride’s arrival in the literary community. A historical novel, it purports to be the account of one Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a young Black boy brought into the company of legendary abolitionist John Brown. Onion and the rest of the Brown entourage encounter various historical figures on their escapades, which conclude at Harpers Ferry. The book is a staple of McBride’s work, uproariously funny while still deeply moral and empathetic at the same time. The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction and was adapted as a Showtime miniseries in 2020, starring Ethan Hawke as Brown and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion.
The humor apparent in The Good Lord Bird was entirely on display in 2020’s Deacon King Kong, which follows life in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969. Local grump Sportcoat Lambkin shocks the community when he shoots Deems Clemens, a youth baseball pitcher turned drug dealer. That choice and what follows encompasses the housing project, the local church where Sportcoat is a deacon, the local police, and even the Italian crime bosses. The exaggerated humor in a gritty situation emphasizes the large amount of heart on display throughout the narrative. Deacon King Kong was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection and received the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
McBride’s 2003 debut is a historical novel following a cadre of 92nd Infantry Division Buffalo Soldiers serving in the Italian theater of World War II. McBride drew upon his uncle’s experiences to write the story, feeling it was necessary to center the stories of Black veterans of World War II. Miracle at St. Anna highlights the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where hundreds of Italian villagers were slaughtered by German forces. The novel left a powerful impression on director Spike Lee, the son of a World War II veteran, who enlisted McBride to write the screenplay for his 2008 adaptation of the novel. Lee and McBride collaborated again on Lee’s following release, 2012’s Red Hook Summer.
The same year of Miracle at St. Anna’s theatrical release, Mcbride released his second novel, set in the same antebellum America he would revisit in The Good Lord Bird. In Song Yet Sung, McBride sends readers to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Liz Spocott has escaped slavery and is traversing the underground railroad to freedom. Hot on her trail is Denwood Long, a slave catcher with his own demons to face. The book examines the morals of the era and looks towards a more equal future through the strivings of its two main characters.