Fiction writers create worlds with words – time, setting, mood, characters, meaning – hopefully delivered with an emotional impression. James McBride proved himself a deft creator of worlds with the National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird. The challenge with short stories is creating multiple meaningful worlds in just a few pages each. With Five-Carat Soul, James McBride proved he was up to the task.
Five-Carat Soul consists of seven short stories, all humorous and poignant, touching on themes of race, freedom, and soul.
In the first, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” a Jewish toy collector, Leo
Banskoff, follows a lead on a one-of-a kind model train built by Smith & Wesson and commissioned by Robert E. Lee just before the Civil War as a gift for his son Graham. When placing a value on a toy, it’s not just the item, but the story behind it. “The sadder the story, the more valuable the toy. That is a human element, and it’s one that no painting has. The specific history of sorrow or joy in a child’s life, when determining the price, means the sky’s the limit.” Leo finds the train’s owners in Queens, New York, a Rev. and Mrs. Hart. They are black and of meager means. Leo is prepared to drive a hard bargain, starting with a low-ball offer of $90,000. He is shocked when Mrs. Hart refuses the money and wants to give the train to Leo for free, because she and her husband are devoutly religious and uninterested in material things. He tries to explain to her that the train is worth a lot of money, but she is not interested. “In this house, we care about souls, sir,” she admonishes. When Leo asks where he can find Rev. Hart, Mrs. Hart
provides a list of his pious undertakings, including praying with prisoners at Riker’s Island, ministering at a church in Brooklyn, and conducting prayer meetings and Bible study.
Leo works out a deal to set up a trust fund for the Hart’s son. He is left dissatisfied, however, because the Harts are reluctant to tell Leo how the train came into their possession. He wants the train’s story. Once he has almost given up, Leo tracks Rev. Hart to a hip-hop club in Brooklyn. Inside, Leo hears Rev. Hart perform a rap about the evils of slavery and the punishment God continues to mete out upon mankind for these evils. “…[A]n innocent child paying for generations of stolen trains, stolen cars, stolen land, stolen horses, stolen history, stolen people arriving at a strange land inside a merchant
ship…and then God’s punishment for their captors, passed down for generations to their captors’ innocent children…both captor and slave, suffering God’s justice and inexplicable will….” Leo walks away from the performance feeling redeemed.
Two of the stories (“Father Abe” and “Fish Man Angel”) take place in the civil-war era. “Father Abe” features a Colored Infantry Regiment. For nearly two years, the Civil War was a whites-only affair until the Emancipation Proclamation permitted the enlistment of African-American men. Although fighting side-by-side, Father Abe says history will remember whites differently than blacks: “The white folks’ll know theirs, won’t they? They’ll write songs for ’em and raise flags for ’em, and put ’em in books…ain’t nobody but God gonna give more than a handful of feed to the ones of us who died out here fighting for our freedom.”
In all of McBride’s stories, big questions are posed and boldly addressed, building worlds of amazing variety.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Mo
nday, March 4. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 6 to discuss Five-Carat Soul at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.