How to Read James McBride: A Guide to the Author’s Canon

James McBride/Photo © Chia Messina

Some writers examine the grand themes of American history and pop culture. Others use their specialized knowledge to offer insights into aspects of life that might not occur to most readers. And still others find the resonant aspects of their own familial stories and turn that into the stuff of memorable literature.

In the case of James McBride, all of these apply. He spent years working as a journalist, but also kept a foot in the music world, which gives him the ability to analyze the work of a notable musician (say, James Brown, subject of his book Kill ‘Em and Leave) from multiple angles simultaneously. McBride has written both fiction and nonfiction, covering everything from the complexities of his own family’s past to some of the bleakest places in the annals of American history.

Here’s a look at McBride’s six books – four works of fiction, two of nonfiction – as well as a sense of what you might find within each and the order in which we recommend you read them.

  • The cover of the book Five-Carat Soul

    Five-Carat Soul

    McBride’s most recent book is his first collection of short fiction, and it offers a good sampling of his strengths as a writer along with his preferred themes. Some stories revisit the same periods in which his novels were set: Both the Second World War and the mid-nineteenth century are represented here. There’s also a metaphysical dimension to several of them: “Mr. P & the Wind” explores the secret lives of animals in an unexpected way, while “The Moaning Bench” reads like McBride’s take on a “Twilight Zone”-ish tale of the uncanny. And the book’s opener, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” brings together questions of history, music, and family in a way that’s unpredictable and bittersweet.

  • The cover of the book The Color Of Water

    The Color Of Water

    A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

    The subtitle of McBride’s acclaimed first book is “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” Once you’ve read it, it’s easy to see why he wrote it: His mother, Ruth, left her family behind for love, and went on to raise a dozen children, all of whom have found an impressive degree of success in their chosen professions. The way in which Ruth’s voice emerges throughout the narrative makes the book feel decidedly (and lovingly) collaborative. Perhaps, given that McBride’s artistic background includes immersion in the music world along with his literary work, calling it a duet wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Either way, it gives a tremendous sense of both his mother’s life and his own upbringing.

  • The cover of the book The Good Lord Bird

    The Good Lord Bird

    McBride’s third novel won the National Book Award and The Morning News’s Tournament of Books; its landing was understandably loud. It’s a big, sprawling, ambitious novel that reckons with American history, abounds with larger-than-life characters, and blends harrowing scenes of life with a willingness to embrace the irreverent. In following the life of Henry Shackleford, a young man who escapes slavery and joins up with John Brown – who’s under the impression that Henry’s a girl – McBride creates a narrative that grapples with questions of identity, history, and the legacies we leave behind.

  • The cover of the book Kill 'Em and Leave

    Kill 'Em and Leave

    Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

    In this insightful volume, McBride takes on one of the most singular figures in American music (and American pop culture, period), James Brown. Though it’s a short book, McBride is able to examine Brown’s work from a number of perspectives: how he’s been remembered after his death, his musical legacy, his place in popular culture, and more. McBride examines Brown’s life from a host of angles, and he also includes plenty of information on the ways in which Brown figured into his own life – including a moment from his childhood where one of his sisters briefly met Brown in Queens. Readers who are familiar with his memoir will find a deeper resonance at these moments – McBride is himself a character here, and a welcome guide to the complexities of Brown’s life and work.

  • The cover of the book Miracle at St. Anna

    Miracle at St. Anna

    This unpredictable novel of men at war and unlikely allegiances opens four decades after the end of World War II, with a series of strange events unfolding after a sudden killing in New York City. The bulk of the novel is told as a flashback to the waning days of the war, as a group of black American soldiers do battle with fascists in Italy, even as they also struggle against the racism of the armed forces at the time. A group of Italian partisans represents something of a narrative wild card, and the book’s denouement, where the events that set things into motion are explained, is breathtaking.

  • The cover of the book Song Yet Sung

    Song Yet Sung

    McBride’s second novel follows one woman’s search for freedom in the harsh days of pre-Civil War America. Protagonist Liz Spocott is already in the midst of an escape from slavery when the novel opens; over the course of the book’s pages, she encounters a number of boldly drawn characters, some complex and some gut-wrenchingly malicious. She’s also periodically overtaken by visions of the future for which she’s at a loss to explain – a surreal element that offsets the harsh realities of the world around her.