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The Good Lord Bird

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  21,458 ratings  ·  2,926 reviews
Librarian's note: An alternate cover edition can be found here

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between a
Hardcover, 417 pages
Published August 20th 2013 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 3.80  · 
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 ·  21,458 ratings  ·  2,926 reviews

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Jeffrey Keeten
Nov 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Kris Rabberman

“The old face, crinkled and dented with canals running every which way, pushed and shoved up against itself for a while, till a big old smile busted out from beneath 'em all, and his grey eyes fairly glowed. It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren't no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside h
Oct 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This was an extremely difficult read as I was constantly struggling with the thin lines satire cautiously walks. When does satire become mockery? When does it become buffoonery? When does respect give way to disrespect? These are questions I kept asking throughout my read. Because I was filled with so many questions - both morally and intellectually - I couldn't help but hold this book, and the author, in high regards. McBride takes a difficult subject and puts it out there. On the surface, it's ...more
May 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Here’s what I knew prior to reading The Good Lord Bird:
§ That some guy in the history books named Brown tried to eradicate racial injustice.

§ That this guy was not the same Brown who took on the Board of Education. He was from slavery days.

§ That Harper’s Ferry was a place, not a boat. And something of historical importance took place there, though I was fuzzy on exactly what.

§ That Frederick Douglass was a famous black orator and abolitionist with an impressive head of hair.

§ That slavery was a
Feb 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 21-ce, fiction, us
A real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Brown's plan was to steal tens of thousands of rifles from the sleepy, rural armory. With them he would arm fugitive slaves hiding in the Blue Ridge Mountains against their so-called masters. It didn't quite work out. Brown and nineteen others were hung for the attempt.

I like that it's a folksy tale without literary hi-jinx. The wh
Gary  the Bookworm
Dec 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
If Mark Twain and Mel Brooks had ever collaborated, they would have invented a comic character like Henry(etta) Shackleford, a light-skinned slave boy who is freed by the American Abolitionist John Brown and who passes as a girl for most of The Good Lord Bird. It is lucky for us that James McBride thought to create him and to place him at the center of Brown's bloody and quixotic leap into immortality. As the first person narrator, Henry paints a complex portrait of Brown that is both laudatory ...more
"They call that a 'Good Lord Bird,'" Fred tells Onion. "'It's so pretty that when man sees it, he says, "Good Lord." …

A perfect metaphor for the abolitionist John Brown who led a pathetic band of followers, called the Pottawatomie Rifles, in the raid of a federal government arsenal at Harper's Ferry in West Virginia in 1859. The band of followers were nothing but a ragtag assortment of fifteen of the scrawniest, bummiest, saddest-looking individuals you ever saw.

Many sources regards this real e
Shelley Fearn
As the Reader's Advisory Librarian in a library system, I read many, many books. There are only a few that I would truly consider to be works of lasting significance. This is one such book.

In my reading I was struck with the story. For me, it started as a very entertaining recounting of Onion’s adventures when he is “liberated” by John Brown in Kansas during the Border War (1854-1861). I thought that it would be a story similar to those portrayed in the movies O Brother, Where Art Thou and Littl
The Good Lord Bird

Written by: James McBride, Copyrighted in 2013

Published By: Riverhead Books, (Hardback)

“I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”

The Good Lord Bird is written in three parts Free Deeds (Kansas), Slave Deeds (Missouri), and Legend (Virginia).

Henry was a slave who along with his father (Pa) belonged to the owner (Dutch Henry Sherman) of Dutch Henry’s Tavern, in southern Kansas. Henry’s father worked as a barber at the
Craig Pittman
Nov 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Well, I really did want to like this book a lot more than I did. After all, it won a National Book Award and got a rave from the NYT. Who am I to challenge that? And the ending packs a wallop, that's for sure. The problem is all the hills you have to climb to get there.

"The Good Lord Bird" is a novel about race, religion, gender, the American frontier, history and the ivory-billed woodpecker (the bird of the title, because people who saw it were so astonished they cried out, "Good Lord!"). In ot
A wonderful tragicomedy about the life of the abolitionist John Brown told from the perspective of a fictional mascot nicknamed the Onion, a freed slave boy assumed to be a girl.
The child, Henry, is ten and serving as a shoeshine boy with his barber father in Missouri, when John Brown’s raiders attack the tavern of their owner and abduct him after his father is accidentally killed in the gunfire. Henry plays it safe to accede to their presumption he is a girl and assumes the name Henrietta. Bro
Jan 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave / ... / Glory Hally, Hallelujah! Glory Hally, Hallelujah! Glory Hally, Hallelujah! / He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord / His soul is marching on...." "John Brown's Body," Union Army marching song, Am. Civil War, 1861

As the 2013 National Book Award-winning novel begins, Henry Shackleford's memoirs are found in a Delaware church. Henry was a 12-year-old slave in Kansas when taken in by abolitionist firebrand John Brown in 1857 un
Diane Barnes
Dec 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-reads, motley-crew
This book won the National Book Award, and even though I haven't read the other nominees it was up against, I can see why this was chosen. It takes a little slice of American History, namely John Brown's raids in Kansas territory and his attack on Harper's Ferry in West Virginia, puts human faces and emotions on the raw facts, and makes it come alive. Yes, John Brown was a lunatic, but a lunatic with a cause, which made him a dangerous man. He felt he had been called by God to free the slaves an ...more
Garrett Zecker
Aug 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books
The Good Lord Bird is that book that you read, and then reread immediately because of the striking and breathtaking acrobatics the author makes on the page. I was so impressed with this book that I didn’t want to put it down, nor did I find myself doing anything less than going from laughter to tears to just exclaiming “wow” as I read. It is a masterpiece.

McBride in this work is Mark Twain and Quentin Tarentino, with a healthy helping of the humor, violence, sweet honesty, and remarkable awe tha
Feb 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: rth-lifetime, 2015
John Brown is a problem. He represented the extreme but correct response to slavery times: he just dropped everything and said "Well, that's awful and I'm going to murder everyone who does it," and then he did nothing but that for the rest of his life. So that's great...ish, but he was so bad at it! Like he hardly managed to kill anybody. And plus he was white, and white heroes fighting racism make us feel squidgy.

And besides which, check him out:

Lookit that fuckin guy, right? He looks like Yos
Evan Leach
This novel, which took home the National Book Award in 2013, is an odd duck. Author James McBride (most famous for his memoir The Color of Water) constructs this historical fiction novel around John Brown and the 19th century abolitionist movement. But instead of taking a tragic or triumphant tone, as you might expect, McBride presents his story in a folksy, comic fashion. The result is a little uneven, but certainly different.

img: John Brown
Comedy gold?

The tale is narrated by an ex-slave named Onion, who’s pi
Jul 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
When I first heard of this book, I saw the cover and didn't think much of it. But then I started seeing it pop up everywhere I turned. When my book group here on goodreads chose it for a summer read, I still had no intention of reading it. Then I finally read some of the description of what the book is about and I thought, "That's interesting." And while many in my book group are only lukewarm on it, I really loved this book.

It deals with the famous or infamous John Brown and the uprising at Har
Historical novels come in many forms and McBride has gifted us a winner, engaging our every sense and every emotion as we imagine John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that hastened the start of the Civil War. He places the story in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, Onion, a young boy dressed as a girl, who shares his experience and opinions on how that raid came about and why it failed as an insurgency. Living for years with John Brown’s travelling band gave Onion an up close and personal look ...more
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at:

A young slave named Henry Shackleford gets caught up with abolitionist John Brown and the fight for freedom when Brown kills Henry’s father. A misunderstanding in the heat of the moment also has Brown believing Henry to be a Henrietta - a mistaken identity Henry continues to assume as he tries to stay alive.

Ack. This is a hard review to write. Mainly because I didn’t feel anything while I was reading this story. It generally takes me a
BAM The Bibliomaniac
Nov 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, traded
Audiobook # 207

Was not crazy about this book
Nothing wrong with it just not my cup of tea
Dec 19, 2013 rated it did not like it
I'm deeply disappointed not to like this book more, and astonished that it won the National Book Award.

In a word, the book is contrived. Blatantly, flagrantly contrived. And throughout, there are few stretches when I was so engrossed in it that I was unconscious of the narration and the author's particular choice of words. (Not to mention the poor storytelling that leads him to repeat details out of suspicion that the reader is not smart enough to pay attention the first time.)

What is the purpo
Kirk Smith
I am an absolute fan of historical fiction especially when it is done this well. I've always been curious about John Brown. I can read Wikipedia to gather the facts of his life and study the old photos but he hardly seems more than a historical document. Fiction (this book) steps in and brings it all to life. Big, passionate, foolhardy life. Great story.
Jan 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
The Good Lord Bird gets four stars on originality alone, although it is also very enjoyable, and surprisingly moving. In a year when many of the books I've read seem to retread familiar patterns and concerns, the picaresque first-person narrative of a pre-teen cross-dressing (but straight) African-American boy experiencing slavery in the Wild West, John Brown's guerilla campaigns, and encounters with the lodestars of the abolition movement is as much of a bracing pick-me-up as the rotgut whisky ...more
Jan 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
McBride’s latest is a rambunctious imaginative historical adventure tale offering a fresh perspective on a volatile period in American history – John Brown’s zealous quest to free the slaves and the events leading up to raid on Harper’s Ferry. As the book opens in 1856 Kansas Territory, the narrator 10 year-old, Henry “Onion” Shackleford is learning a trade and slave survival tips witnesses his father being killed in a shoot-out between his master and the abolitionist John Brown. With John Brown ...more
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
In this book, a young, orphaned slave recounts his time at the side of American vigilante-abolitionist John Brown, from the time of his Bleeding Kansas raids until his demise at Harpers Ferry. For some reason, the young narrator pretends to be a girl throughout, maybe for comic relief. The tone, especially with the narration on the audiobook, is a bit of a farce on the stereotype of the black slave. It also calls into question how history is told: was John Brown a genuine fighter for human digni ...more
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I picked up The Good Lord Bird as a book on my shelf I’d never gotten around to reading. I didn’t expect my primary reactions while reading to be smirking, snorting, and in some places laughing out loud, while also nodding ferociously at some of the well-observed “truths” McBride’s narrator Onion uncovers over the course of the story. This book is humorous, satirical historical fiction, but I think McBride also hits the absurdity and inhumanity of so much of the American social construct in ...more
May 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Where I got the book: review copy provided by the Historical Novel Society. This review first appeared on the HNS website.

Was John Brown a terrorist, martyr, hero, lunatic, saint or deluded fool? After reading The Good Lord Bird I would still hesitate to give a straight answer, although James McBride does appear to be leaning toward a heroic, almost saint-like depiction of the raider of Harper’s Ferry toward the end of this rollicking ride through the latter part of Brown’s life.

McBride introduc
Jan 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014
James McBride walks a fine line in the National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird.” Treating tragic and painful historical events with humor is risky business. His subject is John Brown and the failed raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry in 1861. Brown was a zealot whose plan to free the slaves bordered on lunacy but McBride succeeds in humanizing him in a rollicking romp of a story that is both irreverent and historically astute.

The narrator is Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old
Book Concierge
Book on CD performed by Michael Boatman.

McBride looks at John Brown and Harpers Ferry through the lens of a “freed” slave, Henry Shackleford (known as Onion). Onion narrates the tale, taking the readers from Kansas Territory in 1856 to the events at Harpers Ferry (then in the Commonwealth of Virginia), when abolitionists led by Brown raided the armory in 1859. This was a pivotal event in the onset of the Civil War.

Onion is a fictional character, but there are many real historical figures i
Dec 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
It’s on page 251 of James McBride novel The Good Lord Bird that a passage can found which speaks to the whole of this remarkable novel.

The novel, at times irreverent but always historically accurate, tells the tale of Henry Shackleford, a slave boy in Kansas Territory. The fiery abolitionist John Brown arrives in the area in 1856, a year known as Bloody Kansas because of the fighting between anti- and pro-slavery forces. After Brown kills Henry’s master he takes Henry. A case of mistaken identit
LeAnne: GeezerMom
Apr 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: buddy-reads
Forgive my somewhat neutral rating for this lovely but very folksy book. It could be my present state of mind or my usual inability to be easily charmed, but nearing the half way mark, I had to call it quits.

The premise of the story is one you've likely heard - a fictional confection that mirrors history and tosses in many cute one-liners a la Mark Twain, Homer Hickam, and Fred Chapell's Kirkman novels. I tired of the crazy, bible-thumping, hours-long-praying abolitionist John Brown. His schtic
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James McBride is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.  He is married with three children. He lives ...more

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