Shameless Self-Promotion, The Good Lord Bird, and Much, Much More!

Shameless self-promotion:

Schiffer Publishing, which still has a healthy stockpile of my book, “Maryland Lost and Found…Again,” is advising its authors to take advantage of Prime Day (Amazon’s annual deal event for Prime members: October 13 & 14).  But Amazon’s promotions are tied to the number of reviews on its site.  Currently, “Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army” has a mere 20, not enough.  MLAFA and Chesapeake County less.

Here’s what Schiffer advises:

“Titles with 25+ reviews (and then again at 50+ reviews) get an automatic boost in search rankings from Amazon, which data shows leads to higher conversion rates.”

So, if you liked (or even if you think you might like) FIVE FOR FREEDOM, MLAFA and/or Chesapeake Country, and have not yet done so, please review and rate them on Amazon. For my Amazon Author’s page, which will take you to each book, click here.

And while you’re there, feel free to follow me.

Speaking of Reviews:

Read my latest for the Washington Independent Review of Books. The book is timely and timeless. It is The Enduring Civil War: Reflections of the Great American Crisis, by Gary W. Gallagher. To read the review, click here.

Good Lord! Bird!

Good Lord! Is that really John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird,” Showtime’s seven-episode version of James T. McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel of the same name? Is it that, as the ads proclaim, “all of this is true”?  Or is it rather that, as the ads also say, “Most of it happened”?

When is it okay to present fiction masquerading as history? And does it really matter? It seems like a fitting question to ask as we mark the 161st anniversary of John Brown’s Oct. 16, 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry that failed to incite a slave rebellion but historians say sparked the Civil War.

McBride’s book makes no claim to fealty to facts. It is unabashedly “a novel,” a work of fiction, and while it roughly follows the John Brown trajectory–from his depredations against slaveholders in Bleeding Kansas to his final denouement at Harpers Ferry–it invents a narrator in the form of a cross-dressing black teenager Brown liberates nicknamed Little Onion.

Possibly, some viewers will take the Showtime series as gospel. Others may hunger for more real history and look for other works of historical non-fiction that stick to the facts.  Perhaps in this time of pandemic there is more time for deep dives into history. But attention spans seem shorter, not longer, more inclined to digest the bite-sized diet served up on social media.

It’s informative to read thoughtful comments on goodreads to McBride’s novel. One reader was inspired to search for “a good biography of John Brown.” Another wondered if the unflattering picture of Frederick Douglass was “historically grounded.”  Yet, if you take “Good Lord Bird” for what it is, a fanciful, off-beat, even humorous account of the John Brown legend, then go for it.

The film “Emperor,” on the other hand, is mostly fiction passing itself off as history.  “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” as I wrote on this site last month:

Last February, a film publicist contacted me about a soon-to-be-released film “Emperor,” said to be based on the life of Shields Green, an escaped slave and one of the FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African Americans in John Brown’s Army I had written an entire book about. The cast was coming to D.C. in a few weeks. Would I be interested in interviewing them, possibly for a piece in the Washington Post?  I viewed the trailer and was chagrined to learn that the film bore little relation to the facts.

The movie was to be released in theaters on Friday, March 20. Then the pandemic hit. The film’s release was put on indefinite hold.  Finally, it is available for streaming (at $5.99) on Amazon Prime. A bit reluctantly, I watched it the other day. It is largely fictional, of course, but, to my surprise, as an action flick with lots of shooting and some great chase scenes, it wasn’t bad. Someone coming to the story with no knowledge of history might even think it is history.

But it is not.  The true story:  Shields Green, also known as Esau Brown, was said to be descended from African royalty, thus his nickname “Emperor.” He was born enslaved in 1836 on a Charleston, South Carolina area plantation. In 1857 or 1858, after his wife had died (the cause is unknown), he escaped, leaving behind a year-old son. There is some evidence that he boarded a ship, most likely carrying cotton, from Charleston harbor north to New England, where the textile mills were located. He may have gone briefly to Canada, though there is no hard evidence, but he did find his way to the Rochester, N.Y. home of Frederick Douglass. There he lived for a time and was self-employed as a clothes cleaner. It was in Douglass’s home that he first met John Brown.

In August 1859, Douglass and Green met with Brown at an abandoned quarry outside Chambersburg, Pa. There Brown sought to recruit Douglass for his ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, where he planned to seize the federal arsenal and incite a slave rebellion.  Douglass warned Brown that he would be walking into “a perfect steel trap,” from which he would never emerge alive, and declined the invitation. As the famed black abolitionist was getting ready to leave, he turned to Green, who said, “I think I’ll go with the old man.”  These two quotes stand out in the film for their historical accuracy. The rest: fiction.

Contrary to what’s on screen, Green did not escape to the north over land, was not determined or make any effort to return and free the son he’d left behind, did not shoot lots of white people prior to the Harpers Ferry raid, which the film shows as a daylight attack on some kind of fort, not the nighttime seizure of the arsenal and town that actually occurred. Nor did Green encounter Levi Coffin, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad leader in Indiana and Ohio, when he crossed into Maryland.  Nor did he survive.  Green was captured with Brown and others at Harpers Ferry, indicted, tried, convicted, and hanged on Dec. 16, 1859. His remains were sent to the Medical College of Virginia, in Winchester, for dissecting.

But why let truth stand in the way of a good story?

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