James McBride and Ray Robertson at the Texas Book Festival

If you’re going to be in Austin this weekend, come by for a conversation with James McBride and Ray Robertson at the Texas Book Festival. I’ll be moderating a panel about their new historical novels set in the 19th century about abolitionist John Brown and David King, a Freeman living in Canada during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Most people know McBride for his memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, a New York Times bestseller. But McBride is also an accomplished journalist, musician and novelist. His latest novel The Good Lord Bird is a comedy that tells the story of “Little Onion,” a slave child liberated by Brown who accompanies him on his violent crusade to end slavery. The book is a 2013 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction. The New York Times praises McBride’s as a rollicking good time.

Ray Robertson gives us the anti-hero David King, a former slave who “has rebelled against his emancipator and his predestined future in the church. He’s taken up residence in the nearby town of Chatham, made a living robbing graves, and now presides – in the company of a German ex-prostitute named Loretta – over an illegal after-hours tavern.” But David’s fall from grace comes from his classical education, not from any flaw in his character. Canada’ Globe and Mail says Robertson “lets us sees how aging and maturity are each other’s inevitable byproducts.”

Both men trod familiar territory for me, as I finish editing my book Tomlinson Hill. I look forward to hearing about the research the men did to give their novels a strong sense of place and authenticity. McBride chose to write in period vernacular, and his lead character mocks Brown as a cultish schizophrenic. There is little doubt that Brown helped spark the Civil War, but the idea untreated mental illness may have played a bigger role than religious fanaticism is an interesting one.

I also look forward to hear about Robertson’s dilemmas in chosing to make his narrator an angry African American male. Robertson gives David a modern voice, perhaps to facilitate the philosophical questions David asks himself. David is mixed race and part of his rage comes from being the product or rape, but also from his inability to fit into either the black or white community.

The Texas Book Festival is one of the last great book events in the nation, taking over the state Capitol building for two days. There are hundreds of panels, most of them taking place in legislative committee rooms or the House and Senate chambers. We’ll be in the Capitol Extension Room E2.010 from 12:45-1:30. I hope to see y’all then.

October 24, 2013