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The Good Lord Bird

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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 anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

417 pages, Hardcover

First published August 20, 2013

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About the author

James McBride

21 books3,463 followers
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 in Pennsylvania and New York.  

James McBride is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

As a musician, he has written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., and Gary Burton, among others. He served as a tenor saxophone sideman for jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott. He is the recipient of several awards for his work as a composer in musical theater including the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award. His “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Tour, a nationwide tour of high schools and colleges promoting reading through jazz, was captured in a 2003 Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television programs in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

---from his official website

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Profile Image for Tracy.
123 reviews10 followers
October 12, 2013
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 a funny little book about slavery and John Brown, but it demands a thorough examination - one I hope to see put forth in institutions of learning.

Onion is such a layered character with such strong symbolism to what it means to be black in America. The idea of American Folklore is put forth to examination and questioning. History is challenged by questioning its overseers and those charged with its dissemination. There were times I felt uncomfortable reading certain lines and/or passages, but once I moved past my own emotions (anger, hurt, disbelief, guilt, etc.) I was able to see the bigger landscape McBride was putting forth for further examination. These characters are caricatures that an author has put forth in hopes of opening windows and doors into a past lost, forgotten and guiltily tossed aside. But I would also say the same for most historical accounts of "great" men and women. This is a book I'll be reading over and over in hopes of peeling back the layers that make it such an emotional and complex read.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
January 31, 2020

“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 him. I saw it clear for the first time. I knowed then, too, that he knowed what I was - from the very first.”

 photo JohnBrown_zpsff32cb92.jpg
John Brown the abolitionist.

The narrator of our tale is Henry/Henrietta Shackleford who is peacefully growing up a slave on the Kansas frontier... until John Brown shows up. In an ensuing argument between John Brown and Henry’s owner the boy’s father ends up dead. Henry is spirited away to freedom and none too happy about it. Later when Brown is on lecture tour he asks Henry to participate.

”And I might ask you to tell some of our donors about your life of deprivation and starvation as a slave. Being hungry and all. Whipped scandalous, and them type of things. You can tell them that.”

I didn’t want to confess to him I weren’t never hungry as a slave, nor was never whipped scandalous. Fact is, only time I was hungry and eating out of garbage barrels and sleeping out in the cold was when I was free with him.

Now Henry is obviously a boy, but because of a mixup from the beginning John Brown thinks he is a girl.

See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta.” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.

So Henry soon finds himself in a dress and most of the time it works for him because the Old Man didn’t believe in women fighting. Henry dreams about the carefree days when he was a slave living in relative comfort before he was caught up in Brown’s crazy schemes to free the black man.

Sometimes being in a dress doesn’t work so well, for instance, when he meets Frederick Douglass.

He squeezed the back of my neck, then stroked it with fat fingers. “This slender neck, the prominent nose--this too, belongs to the slave owner. They feel it belongs to them. They take what is not rightly theirs. They know not you, Harlot Shackleford.”

“Whatever. They know not you, Henrietta. They know you as property. They know not the spirit inside you that gives you your humanity. They care not about the pounding of your silent and lustful heart, thirsting for freedom; your carnal nature, craving the wide, open spaces that they have procured for themselves. You’re but chattel to them, stolen property to be squeezed, used, savaged, and occupied.”

Well all that tinkering and squeezing and savaging made me right nervous, ‘specially since he was doing it his own self, squeezing and savaging my arse, working his hand down toward my mechanicals as he spoke the last, with his eyes all dewy, so I hopped to my feet.

MR. DOUGLASS!!!, you forget yourself sir.

 photo Frederick_Douglass_zps4831e067.jpg
Frederick Douglass may have had designs on our Little Onion.

James McBride does confess to us that all that Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford says may not be exactly true.

"I love the language of, you know, the old, black, country man with a blues guitar and ... boots and the quick banter. ... I just love that voice and I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life and then telling a, just a grand whopper."

James Brown, inflamed with righteous indignation, and convinced that the Lord was on his side starts a war, a crusade, against slavery. The powder keg that is waiting to be lit is in Kansas, a state that must come into the union as a free state. Missouri pro-slavers are riding throughout Kansas intimidating Anti-slavery settlers and even burned the town of Lawrence. Brown’s followers sliced and diced five pro-slavers with broadswords in retaliation.

A tad radical.

He raises an army and fights in several skirmishes with Missouri pro-slavery militia.
In the middle of all this is his good luck charm; Little Onion, the schemer, who is trying like hell to get away from this crazy man. Between all the hours of feverish praying and the constant lecturing Henry knows he can’t be the only one that thinks The Old Man’s cheese had slid off his biscuit.

Henry meets a whole cast of interesting characters during his pell mell journey around the United States and Canada. The descriptions that James McBride crafts of these characters are so memorable, and so creative that I feel like I was standing there with Little Onion when he met them.

Like Harriet Tubman.

Them eyes were staring down at me. I can’t say they was kind eyes. Rather they was tight as balled fists. Full. Firm. Stirred. The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.

 photo harriet-tubman_zps1976c5f3.jpg
Harriet Tubman, her face was like looking into a hurricane.

Or how about Pie, the whore that Henry falls head over heels in love with.

She was a mulatto woman. Skin as brown as a deer’s hide, with high cheekbones and big brown dewy eyes as big as silver dollars. She was a head taller than me but seemed taller. She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got mixed up with the azaleas. She walked like a warm room full of smoke.

Or how about Darg.

He had a thick chest, wide shoulders, and big, thick arms. He wore a straw hat an coveralls and a shawl around his shoulders. His lips was the color of hemp rope, and his eyes was so small and close together, they might as well have been shoved in the same socket. That fool was ugly enough to make you think the Lord put him together with His eyes closed, guessing. But there was power in that man, too, he was raw powerful, and looked big enough to pick up a house.

It all culminates in a final desperate plan to take Harper’s Ferry, liberate the weapons stored there, and give them to the negroes so they can fight for their freedom. Part of Henry’s job was to HIVE the negroes, but no matter how much buzzing he did he found most of the slaves unwilling to risk their lives for freedom especially with a CRAZY WHITE MAN.

 photo John_brown_1859_zpsa6028792.jpg
The Longer the campaign the more GOD LIKE his appearance became.

John Brown accepted long before even the most fervent abolitionists that peaceful calls for the ending of slavery were never going to lead the blacks any closer to freedom. He knew the entrenched ideas of the Southern culture and their economic ties to slave labor would not be changed without militant insurrection. John Brown fought his own civil war before Lincoln was even elected president. He was, in my opinion, insane, but unswervingly committed to his cause, and certainly on the right side of history. He was a man from Connecticut, who instead of sitting around in meeting houses talking about the horrors of slavery, threw himself into this battle before most of the country had even a glimmer of a thought that a war would be necessary to purge this barbaric practice. Change is so difficult that maybe, we will always need a few bat shit crazy people to force us to move forward.

“Whatever you is, Onion," he said, "be it full.”

Highly recommended!!

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews862 followers
May 22, 2014
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 rotten deal for the slaves. They were abused, dehumanized and were denied elemental freedoms.

§ That McBride’s book was attracting the attention of critics and award committees.

Here’s what I came to know afterwards:
§ That John Brown was a religious man, a dedicated abolitionist, and not afraid to die in his crusade against slavery. He seemed to be among the first to recognize that negotiations alone would not work; that it had come to a point where war was the only recourse left to abolish the institution. However, commanding such a small army (about half of which were his sons), his goals were rightly considered quixotic.

§ A former slave boy in his pre-teens provided the colorful narrative voice. He was posing as a girl since Brown mistakenly thought he was one, which was just fine with Henry aka Henrietta aka Onion since it excused him from soldiering. In young Henry’s telling, Brown was almost a caricature – certainly delusional. Even so, you come away with a sense of knowing the man well. He was completely dedicated to the cause and figured having God on his side was his ace in the hole.

§ The book followed the crooked path from Kansas Territory to Harper’s Ferry, VA with Brown and his small band fighting slavery the best they could along the way. The coup de grace was supposed to be the takeover of the armory at Harper’s Ferry at which point many slaves were meant to join the fight for their freedom. Having this to drive the plot – actual history mixed with the fiction – was a big plus.

§ The portrait of Frederick Douglass probably did cross the border into caricature. I won’t go into particulars, but predilections involving women and strong drink seemed exaggerated and his actual accomplishments (which Wikipedia indicates were many) were downplayed. I’m not sure what McBride’s purpose was in doing this. It’s no doubt something interviewers have asked him. In any case, Douglass did not fare as well as the Old Man (Brown) or Harriet Tubman did in PR terms.

§ Like I said before, we all know already what a terrible chapter slavery was in our national history. What was interesting to consider after reading the book was something McBride was clever to do. Through Henrietta he adopted a much lighter tone: more humorous and meek, less severe and morally outraged. In fact, little Onion said he was never hungry as a slave, whereas he often felt starved riding with Brown. This is not to say that slavery was anything but horrible and degrading. I think McBride’s choice was meant to spare us the narrative sledgehammer that might have made us think of slaves as victims only – an exceedingly sad class in the abstract – without thinking of them first as the individuals they were. McBride developed his characters well so that by the time late in the book when Henry said this:

”Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don't know your wants. He don't know your needs or feelings or what's inside you, for you ain't equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy or fat, or don't eat biscuits, or can't suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.”

it really resonated.

§ The award committees knew what they were doing. It was exuberant, entertaining, and thought-provoking. There was one part of the plot I didn’t like where a character did something I thought was contrived and inconsistent as a part of the narrative machination, but I’ve forgiven him for it since it did set up an important scene later on. And other aspects of the book more than made up for the fumble. The writing was vivid, the history was interesting, and riff on the slavery theme was creative. McBride has a background in music so he surely knows how standards in the jazz idiom will depart, at times, from the familiar melody to focus instead on nuances that can expand it.

Profile Image for Matt.
899 reviews28k followers
February 14, 2021
“But that’s the thing. You can play one part in life, but you can’t be that thing. You’re just playing it. You’re not real. I was a Negro above all else, and Negroes plays their part, too: Hiding. Smiling. Pretending bondage is okay till they’re free, and then what? Free to do what? To be like the white man? Is he so right? Not according to the Old Man. It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment…”
- James McBride, The Good Lord Bird

Who was John Brown?

In simple terms, sticking close to established facts, we know that he was an abolitionist who – tired of talking – attempted to incite servile insurrection by attacking the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He was prosecuted for treason – against the Commonwealth of Virginia – and hanged on December 2, 1859. Future Confederate general Robert E. Lee helped catch Brown, while Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson watched the execution, as did future assassin John Wilkes Booth. Novelist Victor Hugo tried to arrange his pardon, while fellow writer Herman Melville wrote a short poem called The Portent, with its final line calling Brown: “The meteor of the war.”

But really, who was he? It is a riddle that matters to the soul of a nation.

Reading the history will only take you so far. Even the best biographies leave you, at the end, pondering.

Thus, if any sort of truth is going to be reached, it has to be through fiction.

And that’s what James McBride does in The Good Lord Bird.

By the end of this uproarious, exciting, exceptionally well-crafted tale, I honestly thought I was sitting next to the man in his jail cell, on the morning of his death, watching him pen the lucid words that would bely his alleged madness: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

At this point, you might be thinking this is some heavy stuff.


One of McBride’s truly inspired moves is to see this tragedy as – first and foremost – a comedy. This novel is as light as one of the feathers of the eponymous “good lord bird,” getting off to a fast start that only accelerates, eviscerating slavery and racism with incisive wit and a huge smile on its face. This might have been written by Mark Twain, but with a sharper perspective and deeper moral clarity.

The greatness of The Good Lord Bird – and it’s an instant classic – comes from its narrator, Henry “Onion” Shackleford. A brief prologue at the beginning introduces us to Henry, who has left behind a manuscript of his time riding with John Brown, from Kansas to Virginia, and all the stops in between. This manuscript, written by Henry in the first-person, represents the bulk of The Good Lord Bird.

As Henry explains, he was a young slave in Kansas kept by a man named Dutch Henry when Brown blundered into his life. After a scene of dark comedy, played – as always – with a light touch, Henry ends up joining Brown’s party of free-state gunmen. The twist, though, is that Brown mistakes Henry for a girl and gives him a dress, along with his nickname. Henry accepts this turn of events with a wisdom-before-his-years pragmatism, noting: “Whatever [Brown] believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”

McBride, through Henry, narrates in a pitch-perfect idiom that avoids both the eloquent excesses of Deadwood and the racist eye dialect of Gone With the Wind. Instead, Henry, and the other inhabitants of this world, have a glorious way with words that is all their own, filled with gleeful turns of phrases, unique similes, and wry dialogue. There is a conversation between Henry and a member of the Underground Railroad that is clearly inspired by one of Abbott and Costello’s most famous bits.

The decision to dress up Henry as a girl is another piece of genius on McBride’s part. Whether it was a sly nod to intersectionality, to Huck Finn, or both, it marvelously plays with the theme of personhood, which is prevalent throughout the book. Slavery – it goes without saying – took away many things from the enslaved, freedom chief among them. Just as ruthlessly, though, slavery stole a person’s identity, and excluded them from rest of the human race as property. Denied economic choice, educational opportunities, bodily integrity, and sometimes their own names, an enslaved person was caught in a cradle-to-the-grave system of exploitation that was often gilded with a smirking paternalism.

McBride shows this reality in a brutal early scene in which a group of slaves are accused of inciting a rebellion. Several white slave owners try to intervene to save their lives, not out of compassion, but because they are monetarily valuable. Henry’s mistaken identity is a subtler, arguably more powerful way of delivering the same message. Having him balance these roles brilliantly illustrates Henry’s multilayered struggle with his youth, gender, and race, as he tries to discover his true self.

Not for nothing, it also allows for some riotously funny moments.

The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction. It follows the broad outlines of the record, including Brown’s brutal murders of pro-slave farmers in Kansas, the Battle of Black Jack, and an epic recounting of the fateful raid on Harpers Ferry. That said, there is a lot of dramatic license, fictional or composite characters, and speculation about real-life occurrences. This is all to the good. Sometimes, historical fiction can feel like getting on a train, where the destination is set, the tracks are immovable, and there is no surprise except for the way the scenery is described. Here, while we know how things end, there are some excellent detours. I don’t want to ruin all of them, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a Frederick Douglass cameo, in which Henry engages in a drinking spree with the famed civil rights leader (and also discusses sunrises over the River Seine).

This is a novel brimming with humanity. McBride is a generous writer, willing to find a touch of good in a prejudiced Missouri Redshirt, and to poke a bit of fun at self-serious northern “Radicals” who would cheer Brown’s speeches but refuse to lift a finger to help. He has Henry speak as a person of his times, rather than as a transplanted citizen of the 21st century. The result can sometimes be disconcerting, as when Henry discusses the hierarchy of slaves within slavery, pitting the “inside” slaves looking down on the “outside” slaves. McBride presents this without comment because he trusts the reader to understand that slavery existed because of such stratifications, and that it does not somehow lessen the institution’s perniciousness. I found that McBride gained a lot of power by giving Henry such an authentically contemporary voice.

The Good Lord Bird is Henry Shackleford’s story, and it only happens to feature John Brown. Nevertheless, the relationship between these two – between the slave boy dressed as a girl, and the abolitionist killer with the Old Testament prophet’s beard – is the strongly-beating heart at the center of things. The friendship and respect between the two, which starts warily and grows throughout, is profoundly touching.

Layered beneath everything else is a search for the motivations and meaning of John Brown, with Henry just as bewildered as anyone. Late in the novel, Henry and Brown have a discussion, in which Brown explains:

There is an eternity behind and an eternity before…That little speck at the center, however long, is life. And that is comparatively a minute…I has done what the Lord asked me to do in the little time I had. That was my purpose…

This line can be read multiple ways: as the words of a hyper-religious zealot; as the words of a madman; or the words of a stone-sober individual devoted to ending a self-evident evil. The Good Lord Bird is too smart to give a pat answer to the enigma of John Brown, or to advance an answer to the question I posed up top. It is enough that it vividly reveals the soul of Henry Shackleford, and in so doing, sheds light on a bit of John Brown’s as well.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,917 reviews2,353 followers
November 28, 2020
Five big stars, one of the best of 2020
So, I’ve been meaning to read this since it was published. The production of the book into a Showtime movie finally pushed me. And between the library and a kindle daily deal, I was able to listen to and read this at the same time. It’s funny, wild, raucous. Folks misquote the Bible in unimaginable ways. It’s got some of the most colorful language, especially when it comes to describing body parts.
The story is told from the POV of Henry/Henrietta or Onion, a young slave that Brown frees in Kansas. Through a communication mixup, Brown believes Onion to be a girl.
The book may be humorous, but it also gives a fascinating account of John Brown . Brown was a true fanatic, a misguided man on a mission, the first not afraid to spill blood to free the slaves. “I have been chosen to do His special work and I aim to keep that charge.”
I found myself totally wrapped up and in this story. McBride totally gives you a sense of the time and place.
As someone who has always had a special fondness for Woodpeckers, I appreciated the folklore about them and that the book was named for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
Some books work especially well as audio books. This is one of them. The narrator, Michael Boatman, was fabulous. I had to check, I was convinced it was multiple narrators. He provides one of the best narrations I’ve ever heard.
Profile Image for William2.
729 reviews2,825 followers
October 3, 2020
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 whole thing—prefaced by a hilarious news story dated 1966—is said to be gleaned from the newly discovered slave narrative of one Henry "the Onion" Shackleton, the only survivor of the raid. The beauty of this sort of writing is that it gets out if its own way, leaving the greater narrative arc open to view. It's interesting how some of the constructions here—the tropes—their economy and method of proceeding, remind me of E.L. Doctorow. I'll have to think some more about that.

To create convincing speech of the period, McBride makes interesting use of solecisms—such as runned for ran, set for sat, gived for gave, throwed for threw, hisself for himself, and incorrect subject-verb agreement as in: "We has come to free the Negro. And you is our prisoner." There are intentional clichés, too, figures of speech which are key to the Onion's idiom. Because this non-standard English is consistently rendered throughout, it never seems a burden to read, as overwrought dialect can often be. See William Faulkner's Flags In the Dust, his third novel, for an example of such overwrought dialect. By contrast, McBride's novel is fresh, broadly funny, a delight. Highly recommended.

The Good Lord Bird has become a TV series of 5 episodes on Showtime. Ethan Hawke plays John Brown.
Profile Image for Gary  the Bookworm.
130 reviews125 followers
December 18, 2013
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 and mildly mocking. Among the novel's many pleasures are the different metaphors he employs to describe Brown's madness: "Seemed like his peanut had popped out of his shell";"he was as upside down as them two rivers";"a bit off his biscuit." He never denigrates Brown's selfless martyrdom but he takes glee in describing Brown's penchant for prolonged prayer: "Old John Brown could work the Lord into just about any aspect of his comings and goings in life, including using the privy....I'd say on average he prayed about twice an hour, not counting meals."

Although Henry is caught in the crosscurrents of slavery, terrorism, fanaticism and farce, he maintains a pragmatic optimism and a keen sense of the absurd: "I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage bags." Henry, like Twain's Huck Finn, is an irreverent observer of human behavior. He gradually comes under Brown's spell: "He was a good kind lunatic, and he couldn't no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn't speak their language." By the time they reach Harpers Ferry, typically later than they'd planned, they'd lost both Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Without them the anticipated slave insurrection never happens. McBride adroitly balances the multiple myths swirling around Brown and the other historical figures without ignoring the humor inherent in their various contradictions. Not only has he made an important contribution to historical fiction, but in the character of Henry, he has injected a little sass - and a whole lot of sense - into the ongoing conversation about race in America.
Profile Image for Shelley Fearn.
304 reviews19 followers
September 10, 2016
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 Little Big Man.

As the novel progressed, I realized that hidden in the wonderfully folksy language, was a story of great import. Within Onion’s recounting of the events are important truths about race, religion, and humanity. Then as the story moved toward the Harpers Ferry raid, I was almost shocked to find the story so suspenseful that I had to keep closing the book. I knew how the story would end and yet when the end of the novel came, I found myself close to tears.

I rarely am so impressed with a book. Don’t miss The Good Lord Bird. (I'm hoping that McBride's book will be submitted for a major award -- The Pulitzer Prize submission window is closing soon.)
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,142 reviews486 followers
September 26, 2017
"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 event and John Brown's rebellion against slavery as the trigger of the American Civil War.
Onion, don’t forget it. If anyone asks, I’m a miner, which is true, for I mines the souls of men, the conscience of a nation, the gold of the insane institution!
John Brown was not only a devotee to the Almighty, but also a plain terror in the praying department. His prayers often lasted two to three hours, leaving him without an audience by the time he opened his eyes, since everyone left the congregation while his eyes were closed. The deeply religious Brown was ...
prone to stop on his horse in the middle of the afternoon, cup his hand to his ear and say: ‘Shh. I’m getting messages from our Great Redeemer Who stoppeth time itself on our behalf.’
A fictional, and, more or less, twelve-year old freed slave boy Henry "The Onion" Shackleford, is the narrator of this tragicomedy.

After being kidnapped by John Brown, and mistakenly taken for a girl, Henry becomes Henrietta, a transvestite, living as a girl, and John Brown's new good luck charm.

In kind-of Mark Twain-esque prose, John Brown becomes a slightly mad, comic caricature-like character with a direct path to The Almighty which leads to one calamity after another. He would eventually be captured and killed for his actions.

While addressing serious issues in the book, including the plight of 'mulattos', and the 'Negroes' who watched white people deciding their fate without asking them to speak at meetings; and most slaves not willing to be freed since they had a good life and did not trust the rebellion, the style of the book is relentlessly humorous. A dark comedy of errors executed perfectly.

The southern rhythmic tone in the prose lends charm to the tale:
Henry: Most women wouldn’t go near him(his father), including my Ma, who closed her eyes in death bringing me to this life. She was said to be a gentle, high-yaller woman. “Your Ma was the only woman in the world man enough to hear my holy thoughts,” Pa boasted, “for I’m a man of many parts.” Whatever them parts was, they didn’t add up to much, for all full up and dressed to the nines, complete with boots and three-inch top hat, Pa only come out to ’bout four feet eight inches tall, and quite a bit of that was air.
The irony is that the reader pirouettes boisterously towards the tragic ending for John Brown, thanks to James McBride's interpretation of this part of history. However, John Brown walks out of this tale a bigger hero than ever before.

A fantastic, refreshing read in the historical fiction genre.
Profile Image for Craig Pittman.
Author 9 books166 followers
December 8, 2013
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 other words, it covers a lot of ground in its 417 pages.

McBride, author of the acclaimed memoir "The Color of Water," tells his tale in the voice of former slave Henry Shackleford (note the irony of the name). As a boy in Kansas, Henry is "liberated" from bondage by none other than John Brown himself -- who then accidentally kills Shackleford's father during their getaway. Because light-skinned Henry is wearing nothing but a potato sack, and because Brown mishears something that Henry's father says, Brown treats the boy as if he's a girl named Henrietta, and Henry goes along with the ruse. As he puts it, he is “traveling incog-Negro."

Because he's hungry, Henry wolfs down the first piece of food that Brown hands him -- which turns out to be a filthy raw onion that Brown's been carrying as a good luck charm. Afterward Brown calls Henry "Onion" and declares that the child is now his good luck charm, or rather, his symbol of Heaven's favor, just like a feather from the "Lord God Bird," which today we know as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Brown gives his newest recruit an ivory-billed feather to wear too.

Despite being a coward who's constantly looking for a way to run off to the North, "Onion" goes along with John Brown on raids, accompanies him in dodging pro-slavery mobs. He later rides along as Brown meets Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass prior to the ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Va. (where there's a cameo by future Confederate general Jeb Stuart). In between is an interlude where Henry helps out around a bordello that illustrates the class divisions among even the slaves and how some of them could be the biggest enemies of abolitionists like Brown who were trying to free them.

Henry has few illusions about Brown, referring to him repeatedly as bedbug-crazy and also using more colorful phrases to express doubts about his mental state: "Seemed like his peanut had poked out the shell all the way," and "the Old Man's cheese had slid off his biscuit.” But in the end he comes to respect his pursuit of a noble goal, if not his method of getting there.

As those examples show, Henry's voice is a beaut, with a patois that mixes comic overstatement and archaic formality. He sounds like a distant cousin to Charles Portis' Mattie from "True Grit" with a bit of Twain's "Huck Finn" thrown in. It's an impressive bit of ventriloquism, since Henry is telling this story in his old age, not unlike the protagonist in Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man." But at times McBride repeats certain phrases and observations -- that Brown's boots are so worn that his toes stick out, for instance, gets mentioned at least three times -- and these and other bits of business let his mask slip a bit. It's as if, during this expert ventriloquism routine, the puppet master suddenly begins moving his lips.

McBride writes some great dramatic scenes -- a hanging to thwart a slave revolt during which a woman named Sibonia shows Henry how he should act in the face of persecution; Henry's conversation with Tubman, who gives him her shawl to use as a door-opener to other slaves; and the raid itself and all the ways in which it went wrong. But overall the tone is comical as Henry scrambles to hide his true nature as he falls in love twice, and Brown breaks into long-winded prayers that have to be interrupted by one of his sons before everyone falls asleep.

The comic tone extends to the chapter in which Brown and "Onion" spend three weeks staying with Frederick Douglass. Bear in mind that the real Douglass was born into slavery, learned to read despite the wishes of his owner, risked his life teaching other slaves to read, was sent to work for a notorious "slave-breaker" whom he then licked in a fight, and made two failed attempts at escaping before his third successful bid for freedom. Once free, Douglass became a prominent figure among abolitionist circles, telling his story and advocating for ending slavery. He also never forgot that he was being sought for recapture as the nation's most prominent escaped slave, and at one point fled to Ireland to avoid arrest.

But you won't hear about any of that in "The Good Lord Bird." Instead the Douglass we get is just a self-important hustler, a guy with a big head in more ways than one who's mostly in love with the sound of his own voice. This Douglass tries to seduce "Onion" (then somewhere between 12 and 14) by getting the "girl" drunk -- a plan that backfires because Henry, thanks to his whorehouse experience with liquor, drinks him under the table. That chapter put me off this book. I didn't understand why McBride chose to depict Douglass that way, except for some cheap laughs, and I think a sharper editor would have urged McBride to either cut it or rewrite it. Should there be a movie version, though, I'm sure this scene will be regarded as a comic highlight, which would be a real shame.

Still, I would urge people to read this book for themselves, because it does say (usually in a sly way) some important things about race and identity in this country. Those are two issues that we're still grappling with all these years later after John Brown's body began a-moldering in the grave.

PS: If you want to know more about Frederick Douglass, I highly recommend the bio by historian William S. McFeely: http://www.amazon.com/Frederick-Dougl...
Profile Image for ij.
212 reviews169 followers
March 10, 2014
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 tavern. An old man took the barber chair who Henry describes as “a stooped, skinny feller, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung, with a nervous twitch in his jaw and a chin full of ragged whiskers.” The old man talked to Henry’s Pa about the Bible which was Pa’s favorite subject since he thought preaching the Gospel was his main job. Soon the subject of slavery came up and the old man made it clear he stood against slavery. The old man thought Henry was a girl, him having curly hair and being clothed in a potato sack. Pa tried to tell him, “Massa, my Henry ain’t a …,” when the old man interrupted him. That’s how Henry became Henrietta. Dutch Henry did not like the way this conversation was going and soon became aware that the old man who had identified himself as Shubel Isaac was in fact John Brown, the abolitionist. A shootout ensued and Henry’s Pa was killed. John Brown rode off with Henry.

Henry considered himself kidnapped by the old man and his thoughts were geared to getting back to the tavern, ASAP. Plus, he had not forgotten the old man had gotten his Pa killed. The old man talked to Henry as if he should be happy to be free. He handed Henry his good luck charm which Henry did not know what it was but assume he had be handed food took a bite out of the small onion. That when Henry/Henrietta got the nick name Onion. They soon caught up with the old man’s army (about fifteen (15) men) which consisted of mostly of his sons. He introduced Onion as a girl and Henry did not speak up otherwise. Onion was put under the care of Fred who was considered slow minded. Fred soon found out the Onion was not a girl, but did not tell.

Henry has many adventures, comparable to a Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn; during his time with the old man in Kansas, but soon finds himself in Pikesville, Missouri. In Pikesville he meets Pie a mulatto prostitute at the Pikesville Hotel. Henry falls for Pie and is ready to take off the nice dress the old man had given him, but, he kept up the charade and remained a girl. The time span from leaving the old man in Kansas until he sees him again in Pikesville is about two (2) years. However, McBride covers this time in six short chapters.

The last part of the story is titled Virginia; however, the old man and Henry do quite a bit of traveling during the next sixteen (16) chapters. They meet Harriett Tubman in Canada and Frederick Douglas in New York. We all know the story ends in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was then part of the state of Virginia. There is historical evidence that John Brown did actually meet with Tubman and Douglas, though we know Henry was not with him.

The story was humorous with Henry escaping trouble many times. Henry had one time to be responsible and missed this when he failed to give John Brown and important message concerning a password and response. This off course may have changed history. I noted that while Henry says he “lived as a colored woman for seventeen years,” the story only covers him from age ten (10) to fourteen (14).

I recommend this book to anyone interested in John Brown or a good story. The book was well written and the author received the 2013 National Book Award for fiction.

Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,280 followers
January 8, 2018
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 Yosemite Sam! And that's how he's described in James McBride's National Book Award winning...what is this, a satire? Is it a slave comedy where our narrator wears a silly dress, John Brown is a loony old coot, and Frederick Douglass is a drunk perv? Yeah, more or less it is. Makes it a weird pair with the also-lauded The Known World: that book seems true but isn't, and this one seems totally made up but is in fact, as far as I can tell from a little research, pretty fair accurate.

And it's incredibly entertaining. "The hard part about writing about a guy like John Brown," says McBride - also btw the author of The Color of Water, which you maybe read freshman year in college - "is that he was so serious, and his cause was so serious, that most of what's been written about him is really serious and, in my opinion, a little bit boring." And you're like yeah, man, I thought Cloudsplitter was boring too. So here's McBride's antidote, and maybe watching a shitfaced Frederick Douglass chase a cross-dressed teenager around the room is a little too "quit fucking my sacred cow" for you, it was a little for me, but at least it isn't boring.

McBride is kidding but not kidding, because he's trying to solve this John Brown problem. Why didn't Douglass show up for John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry? Where was Harriet Tubman? Why was this crazy old white coot the only one who said well fuck it, I'm gonna start shootin' people?

I mean, look, the answer was that he totally wasn't. There were like 250 slave revolts, many of which were way bigger than John Brown's pathetic band of starving psychos. Brown's timing and his flair for drama were terrific, but Nat Turner was the original bloody martyr. But McBride likes John Brown. He wants him heroized. Brown is also famous, he points out, because his plan, suicidally stupid as it was, lacked nothing for ambition. Brown was a total failure at running a war, but he was amazing at getting his ass martyred.

And that's pretty great, especially if you're crazy. John Brown is the answer to moral relativity, which is how old people explain why they like Gone With The Wind. "People were different back then!" they say. "It looks awful now, sure, but that's just how everyone did it; folks didn't know any better." But here's John Brown for the prosecution. He certainly fucking did know better. It's only domestic terrorism if you're wrong.

John Brown was serious business, but he certainly wasn't boring. This book is the same, and I loved it.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,211 reviews453 followers
March 10, 2018
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 and developed a small following of abolitionists and like-minded men, several of whom were his sons and sons-in-law. Henry/Henrietta/Onion was a 10 year old slave whose father died in an altercation with Brown. Somehow Brown got the idea that he was a girl, adopted him to ride along with his "army", and considered Onion, his nickname for him/her, to be a good luck charm. So Onion spent 4 years by his side through thick and thin. Onion tells the story in a voice so wonderfully characteristic that it sings in your ears. It felt to me as though McBride were channelling Mark Twain in this book. There's a lot of irony and reading between the lines and laugh out loud humor in every paragraph. Such as Onion's statement that he had to work harder as a girl than he ever did as a slave.McBride also skewers a lot of sacred cows. His opinion of Frederick Douglas was apparently not too high, as he was not depicted kindly in his few appearances in the book. Also like Twain, the difference between what people say and what they do was a technique used very efficiently to draw their characters.

In the end, I grew to love Old John Brown as much as Onion did. A crazy, unlucky, misguided old man, sure, but he held on to his principles til the second they hanged him for them. He did what he believed was right in spite of the cost, and you can't say that about a lot of people. James McBride has written what I hope becomes a classic piece of literature. It certainly has all the right qualities.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,474 followers
October 2, 2016
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. Brown keeps him close to hand as he considers “her” to bring good luck. Though this literary license we get a realistic version of a man I had long just pigeonholed as an insane and violent fanatic and religious nut. Henry notices a surprising kindness in the man from the start:
One of the mice fell off the rock crevice directly onto the Old Man’s map. The Old Man studied it a moment, and it studied him. …He carefully picked up the mouse and gently placed it back in the rock crevice with the rest of its brother mice, and they set there quiet as pups, peeking over the Old Man’s shoulder as he stared at his map. I reckoned they was like me.

Henry hopes to run away, but initial attempts fail and he becomes resigned to accompanying Brown’s rag-tag band around Kansas fighting pro-slavery settlers and militia. He develops a special friendship with one of Brown’s sons in the group, Fred, who is intellectually challenged but keeps Henry’s secret when he learns he is a boy, assuming him to be a “sissy”. He feels bad about pretending to be a girl to the others, but he takes naturally to the art of it as a means to garner deference and protection:
Truth is, lying came natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss. Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.

Henry has a jaundiced view about religion and like some of Brown’s sons in the group has to struggle to tolerate his framing of all their actions into fulfilling God’s plan. But as with Huck Finn when Sunday sermons could make him feel better nigh til Tuesday, Henry gets some good vibes from Brown’s eloquence:
The Old Man’s prayers growed up right before your eyes; they was all connected, like stairways running from one floor to another in a house, whereas Fred’s prayers was more like barrels and clothing chests throwed about a fine sitting room. His prayers shot this way and that, cutting hither and yon, and in this way an hour passed.

At one point, Henry gets captured by a pro-slavery yahoo who takes him to a bordello in a Missouri town. To avoid getting shanghaied into the trade, Henry makes himself useful to the star prostitute there, Pie, who smites his 12-year old heart from the beginning:
…the feeling of ice cream running down my little red lane in summertime weren’t nothing compared to seeing that bundle of beauty coming down them stairs that first time. She would blow the hat off your head.
She was a mulatto woman. Skin as brown as a deer’s hide, with high cheekbones and big round dewy eyes as big as silver dollars. She was a head taller than me but seemed taller. She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas. She walked like a warm room full of smoke. I weren’t no stranger to nature’s ways then, coming on the age of twelve … This woman had the kind of rhythm that you could hear a thousand miles down the Missouri. I wouldn’t throw her outta bed for eating crackers. She was all class.

Thus, you can see there is plenty of comic relief to this tall tale. As with Twain, McBride hides a lot of truth amid all the fools and their shenanigans. Henry ends up back with Brown after a couple of years and a few plot twists worthy of Skakespeare. On a trip to New England with Brown to raise money from speeches to crowds of abolitionists, we get a priceless scene with Frederick Douglass in which Henry barely escapes his lecherous advances by getting him drunk. I won’t spoil that, but I will share how the wisdom Henry acquires in beholding the fund raising efforts allows him to separate his growing love for Brown from the strange politics that eventually spawned the Civil War:
You would’a thunk that every Pro Slaver, including Dutch, Miss Abby, Chase and all those other low drummers, scammers, four-flushers, and pickpockets, who lived mostly off pennies and generally didn’t treat the Negro any worse than they treated each other, was a bunch of cranks, heathens, and drunks who runned around murdering each other while the Free Staters spent all day setting in church at choir practice and making paper cutout dolls on Wednesday nights. …
He weren’t much of a speaker, to be honest, but for once he got the wind in his sails about our Dear Maker Who Restoreth Our Fortunes, he got ‘em going, and the word spread fast, so by the ime we hit the next church, all he had to say was, “I’m John Brown from Kansas, and I’s fighting slavery,” and they roared. They called for them rebels’ heads, announced they’d trounce ‘em, bounce ‘e, kill ‘em,, deaden ‘em where they stood. Some of the women broken into tears once the Old Man spoke. It made me a bit sad, truth be to tell it, to watch them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren’t hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west, to my mind. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.

Soon thereafter, Brown hatches his famous plot to kick off a slave revolt by taking the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia), inspired in part by the successful slave revolution in Haiti. Advanced members of his group rent a farmhouse nearby to prepare and to secretly inspire slaves in the region in advance of the attack. Henry gets tapped to make communications with local slaves about the plan, which most but not all judge to be absurd and hopeless. It has a Zelig feel for Henry to be in the middle of all this, including the famous meeting between Brown and Douglass in which the latter refuses to join in. The comedy gets darker as the action gets more thrilling. In the end, only 22 men participate in the raid, including 8 whites and 14 blacks, which succeeds but does not spark a broader rebellion. They are soon surrounded by militia and later overwhelmed by federal troops, which ironically include Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, future star generals of the Confederacy. The publicity surrounding the trial and execution of the survivors, Brown and six others, gives Brown a platform and support for his cause, but in the process intensely scares the pro-slavery population, pushing the political process closer to the kick-off of the Civil War less than two years later.

All in all, this came off to me a brilliant, funny, and moving performance by McBride. I already loved his memoir and family biography, The Color of Water and his inspiring novel about slavery, Song Yet Sung, which I also recommend.
Profile Image for Dwayne.
118 reviews109 followers
February 8, 2022
Long before the show came out, this was one of those books that I heard about but didn't really have any particular interest in reading. After reading The Color of Water, I decided to get it, and i'm so glad I did because I loved it! Funny to the point of irreverence, the dialogue was an absolute joy to read. I enjoyed it even more reading it while watching the show. (What a fantastic performance from Ethan Hawke! His SAG and Golden Globe nominations are well-deserved.) For me, this was another great read from McBride. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Perry.
630 reviews497 followers
March 15, 2019
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 under an odd set of circumstances. Brown assumed he was a girl, mistaking the potato sack he was wearing for a dress. Shortly thereafter, Henry earned the nickname "Little Onion" after unwittingly eating part of a rancid onion. Henry stays with Brown's group for a while then spends a couple of years at a Missouri whorehouse, doing odd jobs while continuing to pretend he was a young girl.

Once reunited, he travels with Brown on a tour to raise funds/support for the coming "armed insurrection" of slaves in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. The trip included meeting in Rochester, NY with Frederick Douglass (who the author imagines as a polygamist civil rights icon and alcoholic, sexual pervert who tries to seduce 14-year-old Little Onion [still playing the role of a girl]) as well as a memorable encounter across the Canadian border with a serious, strong and understandably cautious Harriet Tubman.

The novel proceeds to a remarkably imagined few days prior to the infamous raid when the wily, obsessive Brown makes quixotic plans to take the Harpers Ferry armory to arm area slaves, tasking Little Onion with "hiving the bees"; followed by a reimagining of the failed raid that became a primary firestarter to the American Civil War.

"It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment. And that includes loving somebody. If you can't be your own self, how can you love somebody? How can you be free? That pressed on my heart like a vise right then. Just mashed me down.” [Henry "Little Onion" Shackleford]

I was drawn in by the young protagonist, who is somewhat reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn in his journey along the Mississippi River, his connection with an animated and pious Brown, his development as seen through his first person narration which is at first innocent and then cynical.
I was fascinated and amused by the hysterical happenings, some classically hilarious dialogue and evocations of haunting imagery.

Profile Image for Garrett Zecker.
Author 8 books49 followers
December 7, 2013
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 that we get from both artists.

The book is a historical fiction account of the life of the abolitionist John Brown as told through the eyes of a wise Huck-Finn-as-Sarah young man who exhibits all the timidity, bravery, humor, and epiphanies of the timeless character. Known by most as ‘Onion,’ we follow the youngster around through all of his quixotic adventures, barreling through this crucial America as we learn alongside his development just who he is and what is his place in this world.

The book is hilarious, touching, and beautiful, and McBride does so many linguistic, scenic, character, tone, and literary tricks throughout the text that it is almost impossible to truly cover everything that makes this book so great. The easy way out for me is to simply say, it is perfect in every way. I will read it again, and again, and recommend it to everyone I know, and then read it to my students and to my son, and I will go on from there, indefinitely.

As a fan and scholar of Twain, I can think of no other comparison. I have not read his other works, but as far as I am concerned, the genius displayed in this is so reminiscent of the American greats that I can do nothing more than to laud it as a masterpiece and recommend you read it right away.
Profile Image for Ace.
430 reviews23 followers
September 30, 2020
2.5 stars.

I picked up this book because it is a TOB Rooster. One that goes up against one of my all time favourites The Orphan Master's Son in a few days during the Super Rooster.

This started out fine for me. I struggled with the language at first but thought that the tone would shift, surely it couldn't go on for the whole book, y'all? During the development of the relationship between Henry and The Old Man, I was really enjoying this story. But it soon deteriorated into repetition, contradiction and implausible nonsense. By about 60% through I was thinking about how difficult my struggle would be to get to the last page. By the 88% mark a full page of recapping the old mans mental health, his faith, Henry's cowardice and ridiculous plot point about forgetting the password I nearly stopped reading all together. I skimmed through the last 50 or so pages.
If this beats The Orphan Master's Son I will be gobsmacked.

I am eager to read Deacon King Kong. If I see similar annoyances in writing, I will DNF with confidence.
Profile Image for David.
583 reviews122 followers
October 1, 2020
This is a picaresque romp edging toward slapstick, with protagonists that are more caricature than character. Here we have a broad Dickensian treatment of fictionalized history, without Dickens' more skillful control of the narrative; a zany yarn delivered in 458 super sloppy, bloated pages.

To begin with, the story is told in a maddeningly repetitive fashion. McBride basically spoon-feeds the reader. There is never any danger of forgetting a minor plot detail or storyline, because the author will re-supply it when necessary.

Inexplicably, McBride has chosen a framing device that does not work. This is supposedly a former slave's childhood tale, told - when that man is a centenarian - to a church deacon, who then faithfully records it all in a set of handwritten journals. For starters, it is far too long for that. Additionally, it's written down as a first- rather than third-person work; a dictation that is as awkward as it is unpersuasive. And the entire affair is saturated with the kind of dialogue and scenic detail that no verbal telling would accommodate.

There are stunning inconsistencies throughout. This includes failures to justify the timeline (some of which is a matter of record). The most egregious example might be Onion's return to Harper's Ferry on the night of the attack on the armory. We are first told that he arrives at the Kennedy Farm at "one ten in the a.m.". Onion then reminds everyone there that the B & O train - notorious for punctuality - "don't come till one twenty-five". He then proceeds to bolt out on "a five-mile run", arriving just in time to see the train stop before crossing the trellis bridge into town. Yes, all you quick math whizzes, that's a speedy 20 mile per hour zip on foot "in a drizzling rain" through the pitch black night. But McBride manages to ice this newly-baked crap cake with a further incongruous statement:

From the time they walked in there at nine o'clock until that moment the train arrived just after one a.m., was five hours total.

Well. Isn't that something? This isn't your great-great-grandmother's B & O line, that's certain. And let's not get started on the totemic ivory-billed woodpecker.

There were moments when it all bordered on crazy fun, but I can't give this National Book Award winner more than 3 stars. Lovers of Washington Black and The Beverly Hillbillies will likely enjoy this more.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,686 reviews203 followers
September 30, 2020
Alternate history of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 told from the perspective of a fictional young survivor, Henry Shackleford, nicknamed Onion. Three years earlier, at age eleven, he reluctantly joins Brown’s radical abolitionist group after his father is killed. Brown initially believes Onion is female, and Onion goes along with the pretense in deference to Brown’s authority. Onion becomes the “Forrest Gump” of the antebellum, meeting such notables as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

McBride portrays Brown as a little off kilter, displaying the intensity of a religious zealot, while not quite realizing his goal is beyond his grasp. He is prone to lengthy impromptu prayers and rambling lectures. It is surprisingly humorous – a satirical adventure that does not always adhere to the historic record. Onion accompanies Brown on his journey through Kansas, New York, Canada, and Virginia, camping out and, at one point, being housed (as a servant) in a brothel. There are many colorful characters. It is a clever conceit – Henry’s narrates his interactions with Brown looking back from many years in the future.

It is written in a moderately anti-grammatical dialect, as if Henry is talking to the reader “country style.” This is not my preference, but I think it was necessary for a more realistic feeling. I found this novel is a unique interpretation of the many hypocrisies of the era.
Profile Image for Dagio_maya .
886 reviews251 followers
June 16, 2021
Comiche frottole e la sporca verità...

Con l’espediente del manoscritto ritrovato nei sotterranei di una chiesa incendiata nel 1966, comincia il racconto di uno (e forse Il) dei periodi fondamentali della storia degli Stati Uniti d’America.
E’ il 1856 quando il Kansas brulica di avventurieri di ogni sorta.
Il Kansas è, infatti, uno stato chiave dove i pionieri cercavano un passaggio che li portasse ad Ovest.
E’ l’epoca in cui la fama di un uomo è affidata a quello che si racconta nei saloon trasformandosi, di bocca in bocca, in leggenda.
Chiacchiere che fanno nascere eroi o banditi altrimenti improbabili.
E’ proprio attraverso le chiacchiere che il Vecchio John Brown diventa famoso su tutta la pista delle praterie.

«Io sono John Brown. Capitano dei Fucilieri del Pottawatomie.
Vengo con la benedizione del Signore per liberare ogni uomo di colore in questo Territorio. Chiunque si metta contro di me mangerà polvere e pallottole».

Attraverso il racconto di un giovanissimo schiavo inizia il racconto di avventure che hanno perlopiù un tono comico.
Henry Shackleford ha dodici anni e, all’arrivo di questo tornado di nome John Brown, si ritrova tutto ad un tratto orfano e costretto ad indossare abiti donna diventando così di fatto “Cipollina” Shackleford.

Se Brown farnetica stravolgendo (e spesso inventando) citazioni bibliche che dovrebbero testimoniare la sua missione in nome di Dio, d’altro canto ci ritroviamo di fronte a personaggi storici (come ad esempio Frederick Douglas) che sono apparentemente ridicolizzati.
Ci si accorge, leggendo, che quella di McBride è una sottile satira.

Travestito da romanzo storico e comico, The Good Lord Bird. La storia di John Brown, decostruisce e ricostruisce una scenografia reale che rappresenta l’intricato mondo delle relazioni tra neri e bianchi che si fonda essenzialmente su un mucchio di frottole.

Lo schiavo, di fatti, per sopravvivere, deve accettare di essere una rappresentazione di se stesso e quindi mentire talmente spesso da non sapere neppure lui quale sia la verità che gli appartiene.

Contro la schiavitù, John Brown sceglie la lotta armata e se, inizialmente, appare come un pazzo farneticante, la sua immagine è riabilitata alla fine del romanzo dove si riconosce l'importanza del suo ruolo per la presa di coscienza e come scintilla necessaria a far scattare la Guerra di Secessione.

Tanta comicità, tante bugie ma una sacrosanta e indelebile verità che macchia la storia di questi stati dove uomini e donne hanno costretto alle catene altri uomini e donne...

” Nella vita puoi far finta di essere una cosa, ma non puoi essere davvero quella cosa lì.
Fai finta e basta.
Non sei vero.
Io ero prima di tutto un negro, e anche i negri fanno finta: si nascondono. Sorridono.
Fanno finta che la schiavitù gli va benissimo, finché non sono liberi, e poi cosa?
Liberi di fare cosa? Di essere come l’uomo bianco?”

The Good Lord Bird sarebbe il Picchio del Buon Dio
«È così bello che quando lo vede, la gente dice: “Buon Dio!”».
Un uccello che porta fortuna.

Dal libro è stata tratta una miniserie. In Italia è stata trasmessa su Sky nel 2020.
Profile Image for James.
83 reviews86 followers
December 13, 2020
3.5 stars — Heard about this in an American Airlines magazine of all places. It featured an interview with the author and briefly discussed the award-winning novel's adaptation into a Showtime miniseries starring Ethan Hawke, premiering in October.

Interesting read. It's a fictional retelling of abolitionist John Brown’s final years and raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, as seen through the eyes of a 13 year old slave boy named Henry, who disguises himself as a girl (Henrietta). It's funny, almost irreverent, at times, considering the subject matter. Especially the depiction of Frederick Douglass (can't wait to see what Daveed Diggs does with this juicy role in the series).

Took me a few chapters to grow comfortable with the whole tongue-in-cheek, comic tone about a period in history as horrific as this (warning: pervasive racist language throughout). But McBride (an African-American writer) quickly earned my trust and once I got used to the quirky tone, I buckled up and enjoyed the ride!

Don't let the silly, over-the-top style fool you into thinking this is nothing more than a farce. There's some truly beautiful, insightful writing and character development at work here, as well as profound reflections on identity, loyalty, and survival.

Before I even realized it, I was deeply caught up in the story and feeling a surprisingly intense fondness for the two main characters. Despite coming off as a larger than life caricature at first, John Brown emerges a much more complex and flawed human being by the novel's haunting final chapters.

Reading this story of a religious revolutionary who believed chaos and violence were justifiable in the righteous cause of abolishing slavery, in the context of the current nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and debates about the "proper" way to protest systemic racism, also added greater relevancy and intensity to my reading experience!
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,395 followers
September 26, 2013
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 at the man and his mission.

Funny, propulsive, painful, the words of his main character speak to white and black among us in the same voice, making us laugh before we weep with his insights into the natures of the two races and of wild Connecticut white man John Brown who tried with every fiber of his being to free black slaves. Much of the story is told like an old-fashioned gin-fueled bull session featuring tall tales, joy juice, and laughter that eventually devolves into fighting and tears.

The Good Lord Bird, the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker with a thirty-inch wingspan, features in the story as well. Spotting the large bird in the forest is thought to be an exceedingly good omen, though one of John Brown’ many sons unwittingly kills one of the birds—not so good. The feathers of the bird make the rounds of important people in John Brown’s life in the period before the disaster at Harper’s Ferry—being handed off one to another like a talisman to keep them safe. In the end, perhaps, the bird comes to signify the need to consider and keep safe something precious that has no defenses against the evil in the world, something which can be killed at will but that has its place in the circle of life, spreading seeds in fertile soil.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the sometimes raucous nature of the tale, our deep interest in the life and cause of John Brown flickers to life, fanned by gales of laughter. I find myself genuinely interested in how much detail is actually known of the men following Brown in that period, and how closely McBride’s description of the disaster at Harper’s Ferry detailed the truth. And, of course, one cannot help but wonder anew how much violence, or the threat of violence, manages to finally galvanize the populace when good intentions and good words are simply insufficient.

This is a fine addition to the magnificent fiction long list for the National Book Award for 2013. My suggestion is to read them all since those on the list I have read each deserve honors.
Profile Image for Evan Leach.
460 reviews129 followers
March 22, 2014
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 picked up by Brown before the Pottawatomie Massacre and ends up accompanying Brown all the way through Harper’s Ferry. Onion is wearing a dress when he first meets Brown, which causes him to be mistaken for a girl. As a result he decides to double down and pose as a girl for the entire book, which sets up the sort of comic zaniness you would expect. I didn’t think this whole cross-dressing angle was particularly side-splitting, but there you go. Brown's travels give Onion the opportunity to meet such 19th century luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, which I enjoyed reading about.

The most memorable thing about the book is Onion’s homespun narration. McBride does a great job with this, which sets up a lot of the book’s comedy:

”But what he lacked in size, Pa made up for with his voice. My Pa could outyell with his voice any white man who ever walked God’s green earth, bar none. He had a high, thin voice. When he talked, it sounded like he had a Jew’s harp stuck down his throat, for he spoke in pops and bangs and such, which meant speaking with him was a two-for -one deal, being that he cleaned your face and spit-washed it for you at the same time— make that three-for-one, when you consider his breath. His breath smelled like hog guts and sawdust, for he worked in a slaughterhouse for many years, so most colored folks avoided him generally.”

The combination of voice and subject matter is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although The Good Lord Bird is not quite the same caliber. Like Twain, McBride goes for a mix of humor and pathos, which can be a delicate balance to achieve. The finale (the big setpiece you would expect for a book starring John Brown) is strong and probably the closest McBride comes to reaching Huck Finn level heights.

All in all I found the humor here to be clever, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Some of the dramatic elements were quite good, but the highlight of the novel was Onion’s rustic first-person narration. A fun read, although not one I would have pegged as a major award winner. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Elizabeth☮ .
1,497 reviews11 followers
November 16, 2017
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 Harper's Ferry. I have been to Harper's Ferry and read all about the history of John Brown and what moved him to insurrection. It is quite moving to stand in the place (or near it) where all of these events occurred.

The narrator of the story is Onion. He is kidnapped (freed) by John Brown and his men while he is enslaved in Kansas Territory. Brown mistakes him for a girl and so Onion maintains this guise throughout his acquaintance with Brown (or Old Man as he is called).

Onion is a reluctant participant in Old Man's plans to free all enslaved men. Old Man is passionate and undaunted by doubters in his midst. He holds true to his belief that he is ruled by only one man: God. The picture we get of Brown is one of a man that is a little bit crazy (Onion often makes note of this when around Brown) to pull off his plans, but a man that moves forward in the face of incredible odds nonetheless.

The pace is quick and it feels like we are on the road with Onion as his adventures take him to Missouri and Virginia and even to Philadelphia and Boston. The honesty of Onion's voice is often amusing and heart-breaking. He is a child when this all begins, so that lends a sense of wonder to what he witnesses (not all of it bad).

The title signifies a bird so beautiful that when a man has the good luck to see it he exclaims, "Good Lord ain't it perfect." And it is a feather of such a bird that keeps Onion safe in his many engagements with gunfire while with Brown and his men. Old Man explains further the point of the Good Lord Bird and how this is connected to Onion and his mission in life now.

A book that looks at slavery with a laugh and a wink.

One of my favorite lines: "White folks got insane after the Old Man done his bit, they went on a rampage and attacked coloreds for miles. They was scared outta their minds. I reckon in some fashion, they ain't been the same since."

Another one: "I do believe he done more against slavery in them last six weeks with letter writings and talking than he ever done raising one gun or sword."

I love the language and the tone of the book. This one surprised me and really took me on an adventure.
Profile Image for Elaine.
773 reviews350 followers
January 20, 2016
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 our hero/ine Onion loves to pour down his "little red lane" (throat).

I have no idea if the colorful idiom in which Onion narrates the book is authentic at all, but it is fun to read. Like so many books these days, Good Lord Bird could have used a careful edit - sometimes phrases and even passages repeat a little too much - but the overall effect is very engrossing.

The book started slow. For me at least, Brown's campaigns are the least interesting part of the book, partly because the descriptions of military maneuvers seem repetitive (and also improbable). But both the comic and tragic elements of the book kick into gear during Onion's time as a house slave in a Missouri brothel. Indeed, much of the book is quite broadly funny, which makes it something of a surprise when the story turns genuinely moving and actual heroism comes into play in the book's final chapters.

It's a brave project to write a comic novel about slavery. At times, it provokes discomfort (remember Life is Beautiful? same dissonance). It seems almost sacrilegious when Frederick Douglass himself comes in for a lampooning (but it is funny), although thankfully Harriet Tubman retains exactly the majestic power you've imagined she must have had since you first learned about her in second grade. And in another bold move, McBride shows scene after scene of African-American characters behaving selfishly and ignobly - this is what slavery does to people, he stresses, it doesn't tie them together in saintly brotherhood (though there are exceptions), it makes them desperately and singlemindedly focused on their own survival. That's a powerful undertone to the comic riffs on the surface.

McBride's bravery and originality make this a very worthwhile read, even when some passages drag and others seem repetitive. I'm never sure if it's a spoiler when it's history, but the final chapters shake off the wry meandering parody of the rest of the book, and you will have tears in your eyes when you read them. We're all venal and fearful, McBride says, but when we're not - it's very powerful indeed.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,394 reviews7,264 followers
March 3, 2014
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

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 about a day or day and a half to get through a novel of this size. The Good Lord Bird took me three weeks. The first 100 pages were good and I was really thinking I was going to breeze right through and lovelovelove it, but then the story just became a loop of the same scenes complete with the same dialogue and I wanted to put it down. And put it down was exactly what I did. In the three week span of reading this book, I also read 12 others. By the time I reached the climax and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, I was more than ready to be finished.

I will say that Mr. McBride has a wonderful sense of humor and, as this won a National Book Award, he can obviously write. Sadly, he just didn’t write a story that resonated with me.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews304 followers
June 15, 2020
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 the 1850s (and today): slavery, violence against black people, colorism, erasure of black voices. And yet by giving his individual characters depth, dimension, motive and personality, McBride’s Onion, Old Man (John Brown), Bob, Brown’s sons, and various other characters are more than just stock figures enacting the scenes to illustrate McBride’s themes. It’s a tightrope, but for me at least, McBride really pulled it off: I was entertained, amused, horrified, enraged, and educated by various turns. I went with 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 stars: I think right after reading it I probably would have rounded down, but I let this novel sink deeper into my brain and after swirling around the themes and doing a bit more unpacking of the novel, I really marveled at its ability to make me think and feel in addition to finding it enjoyable and well-written.

He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

The book opens in the heart of Bleeding Kansas, when Kansas was a territory not a state and the struggle between abolitionists and pro-slavers over the state’s fate mirrored the larger political, ideological, and violent disagreements across the country. Onion through a series of unfortunate events is mistaken for a girl and then “liberated” from slavery when John Brown/the Old Man accidentally kills Onion’s father. Onion, the Old Man, and his not so merry band of sometimes-abolitionist allies go on a long journey through free and slave territories and states, interacting with a cross section of society – free, famous, important to slaves and poor or working people – until they all wind up at the place of destiny: Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and the doomed raid to seize munitions and free black people. With this seemingly serious and important historical moment and the horrors of slavery as a backdrop, as I said earlier I really was not expecting things to be so damn funny. Onion is such a good unreliable narrator, framed as an adult man reflecting on times long past as a child, and his observations and recollections can be very sharply observed and snarky to downright hilarious. I think I first knew what I was in for in the opening scenes in which Onion first meets John Brown, the Old Man, and is mistaken for a girl based on a mispronounced name (and oh the link to modern day microaggressions and “black names” just made this more funny):

See my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man hear Pa say “Henry ain’t a” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.

To Onion pulling his best Scarlett O’Hara and riffing on the stereotypes of biracial women of the time (see Eliza from Uncle Tom's Cabin) and using his “feminine wiles” to put a nosy rebel pro-slaver off the scent:

“I am Henrietta Shackleford and you ought not to talk ‘bout me like I am a full-blooded n-, being that I am only half a n—and all alone in this world. The best part of me nearly as white as you, sir. I just don’t know where I belongs, being a tragic mulatto and all.” Then I busted into tears.

To how Onion recollects his interactions with Frederick Douglass, the great man of black and abolitionist history, somewhat reduced to a comic character of predatory lechery and bombast, but with some choice lines:

“Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro Diaspora?”

The more stupefied he got, the more he forgot about the hanky-panky he had in mind and instead germinated on what he knowed – orating. First he orated on the plight of the Negro. He just about wore the Negro out.

But if all The Good Lord Bird was was a comic romp through pre-Civil War Kansas, Missouri, the North and Virginia with slavery, abolitionists, and Onion’s hiding as a girl played for laughs, the book wouldn’t have been successful. Instead, the comedy lives alongside and gives way for really serious, thoughtful meditations on the creation of the myth of John Brown, the necessity of the Civil War to free the slaves, the complete ignorance and dismissal of black people’s needs, wants, fears in everything, gender norms and their subversion or removal especially among slaves as a means of survival. For example, on the question of gender, Onion is going through this point of life as a girl for an added level of safety and to conform with what the Old Man has assumed about him. It’s telling then that in Onion’s eyes, the people depicted with the most strength, courage are black women: Sibonia and Libby, Harriet Tubman, and Miss Becky. (And note that McBride does give us a character like Pie to show another, more selfish but perhaps necessary from circumstances side of survival for female slaves). When Onion tries to gather his own courage and figure out what it means to be a man, those female examples seem to be the ones he relies on most, as he rephrases some of the ideas of Sibonia and Harriet to push him to act for the good of others and risk his own safety, and stop hiding and concealing who he was.

Onion’s coming of age in the novel also reflects the transformation from slave to free person: Onion explains how hiding, covering, lying, tricking are tools of slaves to stay alive and ahead of the white masters, so Onion seem to cement Onion’s status as truly free and fully himself. Onion’s loss of innocence and admission of responsibility for some of the calamitous raid to me also reflects the price of freedom. As the narrative unfolds, Onion’s perspective expands to take on more than his own survival and immediate desires of security, and we see greater recognition of the silencing and lack of agency and willpower black people are thought to have by whites and decisions are made about and for Onion and others. Take for example the difference between how Bob describes how he was “freed” by Brown and later essentially forced into being part of Brown’s army:

”My marse and I was rolling to town. I heard a noise. Next thing I know, he stepped out the woods holding a rifle in marse’s face. He said, ‘I’m taking your wagon and freeing your colored man.’ He didn’t ask me if I wanted to be free. Course I come along ‘cause I had to. But I thought he was going to free me to the north. Nobody said nothing about fighting nobody.”

Versus how later in the story the Old Man portrays black people and their desire to join his cause (again mirroring Onion’s earlier observation about how belief does not require truth, and certainly not in considering a black person as a person):

"They will join us ‘cause we will offer them something their masters cannot: their freedom. They are thirsting for the opportunity to fight for it. They are dying to be free.". Ironic all the more as Onion puts it, during the first day of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, to count, I’d seen with my own eyes the first two folks deadened in the Old Man’s army on account of him freeing the colored was the colored themselves.

Note that McBride doesn’t make Bob’s experience and perspective as a slave turned free person the only one in the book either, and shows the reader slaves and black people who are thirsting to be free, but attempting to do so without violence for themselves and loss of life. Brown’s planned raid on Harper’s Ferry is potentially interfering with and exposing a long operated section of the Underground Railroad, again throwing into stark relief the agency and will of slaves to escape and black people (and white allies) to assist them with the white-centered approaches of Brown and the righteous abolitionists and some of the pro-slavers. They have opposing views that lead them to be deadly enemies to be sure, but they can both be easily callous and indifferent to the actual needs of black people and that disregard is built into the system for both sides. For example, in the heart of abolitionist America, Onion sees that black voices outside of Mr. Douglass are nowhere to be found (and how that silence is another form of violence against black people) when the evils of slavery and the need for overthrowing the South and killing rebels is praised:

It made me a bit sad, truth be to tell it, to watch them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren’t hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west, to my mind. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro

Even in (for me) the novel’s last humorous moment towards the end, there’s a damning of some of the characters for failing to recognize that Onion is a boy and has been the whole time, but it’s made funny and also sad in that one of the few white people to recognize Onion as a boy probably does so from a perspective of understanding the value of Onion as property, not as a human being:

The soldier smirked. “Her?” he said. “That’s a he, sir,” he scolded. “Can’t y’all tell your n—s one from the other? No wonder y’all got insurrections all ‘round here. You treat your colored so damn bad you don’t know one from the other. We’d never treat our n—s this way in Alabama.”

I’ve spoken less than some other reviews about the Old Man, aka John Brown, as a character, and that’s because in my reading, most of this novel belongs to Onion. The Old Man also doesn’t change much in the narrative; instead through Onion’s eyes and recollections, we watch John Brown morph from the odd looking old guy getting a haircut in Dutch Henry’s, to a zealous, brutal abolitionist with a propensity for overly long and sometimes untimely sermons, to a horror story or boogeyman that rebels swap tall tales about, to finally a doomed, failed revolutionary transformed into a legendary martyr and spark of the Civil War: as Onion puts it, I do believe he done more against slavery in them last six weeks with letter writings and talking than he ever done raising one gun or sword.. And Onion comes to see that the war is somewhat inevitable and so John Brown was divinely chosen to set things in motion to free all slaves, but we as the reader can certainly also interrogate Brown’s actions and ideas that don’t align with that vision of freedom.

Ultimately, The Good Lord Bird is successful because even as a piece of historical fiction and satirical comedy, it has important things to say not just about America of the 1850s but America today, and the long arc towards freedom and justice and equality has been a long time coming and a long time deferred, denied, and violently suppressed. It’s hard, especially as a biracial and black person myself, not to despair sometimes when considering the hundreds of years of systemic racism and dehumanization we’ve faced in forms and garb that simply mutate to reflect the changing times. But this book reminded me that even for those despairing and even in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds and death and destruction, things can move towards improvement and betterment, and the novel does this while also having real empathy for the emotional and intellectual burden faced.

Some things in this world just ain’t meant to be, not in the times we want ‘em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that’s to come. There’s a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that’s a heavy load to bear.
Profile Image for Fabian.
935 reviews1,527 followers
July 10, 2020
"The notion that a group of white fellers had taken over the country's biggest armory to help free the colored race was just too much for 'em to handle, I reckon." (400)

LORD BIRD is slave insurrections told to you in the Huck

What a doozy! The spitfire telling of this tremendous tale of a white abolitionist who's made of mystical bones and composed of a genuine folk hero's wet dream--and something that's lyrical, fast paced, epic-wide, and funny AF. My feathered hat off to the tremendous J. McBride!

I think the perfect timing of comedic beats one of the highest delights in literature. For something seriously picaresque, bittersweet and savage, look no further!
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