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Twice Told Tales

The Good Lord Bird. By James McBride. Knopf, 2013. 352 pages
An Officer and a Spy. By Robert Harris.

These books have almost nothing in common. But I happened to read them back-to-back, and one thing struck me: both take well-known stories and make them compelling even though the outcomes are not in question, and they do so in entirely different ways. The Good Lord Bird (not to be confused with The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, which is about the Ivory Bill Woodpecker and is by TNC’s own Phil Hoose) takes John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry as its text and uses it as the basis for an exuberant, funny, troubling, and wise book. McBride’s astonishing ability to capture the language of his narrator, an illiterate 10 year-old boy who spends most of the book pretending to be a girl, is worth the price of admission all by itself. I have no idea whether people born in Kansas Territory in 1850 actually spoke the way McBride writes, but after reading this book you would never convince me otherwise; McBride completely inhabits these characters, particularly the way they speak, and their voices resonate long after their story has been told.

Robert Harris takes a more conventional approach, but he also succeeds in crafting a story that manages to be suspenseful even though the outcome is never in doubt. While McBride gives John Brown quite a bit of time onstage, even though he is not in truth the main character, the main figure in An Officer and a Spy, Alfred Dreyfus, looms in the wings, making a fleeting early appearance and then disappearing to Devil’s Island, to be heard from only in a few ghostly letters until the very end. The main figure is Major George Picquart, a loyal officer who only slowly begins to doubt the case against Dreyfus, and it is his transformation that gives the book its shape, and the narrative drive the keeps you turning the pages. With cameos from Emile Zola and other Dreyfusards, and effective portraits of Paris and North Africa, Harris makes the old story worth hearing again.

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