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The Good Lord Bird

3.73  ·  Rating Details  ·  13,801 Ratings  ·  2,067 Reviews
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 ab
Hardcover, 417 pages
Published August 20th 2013 by Riverhead Books
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Jeffrey Keeten
Aug 31, 2015 Jeffrey Keeten rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Kris Rabberman

“The old face, crinkled and dented with canals running every which way, pushed and shoved up against itself for a while, till a big old smile busted out from beneath 'em all, and his grey eyes fairly glowed. It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren't no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside h
Oct 12, 2013 Tracy rated it it was amazing
This was an extremely difficult read as I was constantly struggling with the thin lines satire cautiously walks. When does satire become mockery? When does it become buffoonery? When does respect give way to disrespect? These are questions I kept asking throughout my read. Because I was filled with so many questions - both morally and intellectually - I couldn't help but hold this book, and the author, in high regards. McBride takes a difficult subject and puts it out there. On the surface, it's ...more
May 22, 2014 Steve rated it it was amazing
Here’s what I knew prior to reading The Good Lord Bird:
§ That some guy in the history books named Brown tried to eradicate racial injustice.

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

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

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

§ That slavery was a
Gary  the Bookworm
Dec 17, 2013 Gary the Bookworm rated it it was amazing
If Mark Twain and Mel Brooks had ever collaborated, they would have invented a comic character like Henry(etta) Shackleford, a light-skinned slave boy who is freed by the American Abolitionist John Brown and who passes as a girl for most of The Good Lord Bird. It is lucky for us that James McBride thought to create him and to place him at the center of Brown's bloody and quixotic leap into immortality. As the first person narrator, Henry paints a complex portrait of Brown that is both laudatory ...more
Shelley Fearn
As the Reader's Advisory Librarian in a library system, I read many, many books. There are only a few that I would truly consider to be works of lasting significance. This is one such book.

In my reading I was struck with the story. For me, it started as a very entertaining recounting of Onion’s adventures when he is “liberated” by John Brown in Kansas during the Border War (1854-1861). I thought that it would be a story similar to those portrayed in the movies O Brother, Where Art Thou and Littl
Craig Pittman
Dec 08, 2013 Craig Pittman rated it liked it
Well, I really did want to like this book a lot more than I did. After all, it won a National Book Award and got a rave from the NYT. Who am I to challenge that? And the ending packs a wallop, that's for sure. The problem is all the hills you have to climb to get there.

"The Good Lord Bird" is a novel about race, religion, gender, the American frontier, history and the ivory-billed woodpecker (the bird of the title, because people who saw it were so astonished they cried out, "Good Lord!"). In ot
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
Garrett Zecker
Dec 07, 2013 Garrett Zecker rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books
The Good Lord Bird is that book that you read, and then reread immediately because of the striking and breathtaking acrobatics the author makes on the page. I was so impressed with this book that I didn’t want to put it down, nor did I find myself doing anything less than going from laughter to tears to just exclaiming “wow” as I read. It is a masterpiece.

McBride in this work is Mark Twain and Quentin Tarentino, with a healthy helping of the humor, violence, sweet honesty, and remarkable awe tha
Evan Leach
This novel, which took home the National Book Award in 2013, is an odd duck. Author James McBride (most famous for his memoir The Color of Water) constructs this historical fiction novel around John Brown and the 19th century abolitionist movement. But instead of taking a tragic or triumphant tone, as you might expect, McBride presents his story in a folksy, comic fashion. The result is a little uneven, but certainly different.

img: John Brown
Comedy gold?

The tale is narrated by an ex-slave named Onion, who’s pi
Mar 11, 2014 gaudeo rated it did not like it
I'm deeply disappointed not to like this book more, and astonished that it won the National Book Award.

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

What is the purpo
Aug 18, 2013 Beverly rated it it was amazing
McBride’s latest is a rambunctious imaginative historical adventure tale offering a fresh perspective on a volatile period in American history – John Brown’s zealous quest to free the slaves and the events leading up to raid on Harper’s Ferry. As the book opens in 1856 Kansas Territory, the narrator 10 year-old, Henry “Onion” Shackleford is learning a trade and slave survival tips witnesses his father being killed in a shoot-out between his master and the abolitionist John Brown. With John Brown ...more
Oct 31, 2015 Alex rated it it was amazing
Shelves: rth-lifetime, 2015
John Brown is a problem. He represented the extreme but correct response to slavery times: he just dropped everything and said "Well, that's awful and I'm going to murder everyone who does it," and then he did nothing but that for the rest of his life. So that's great...ish, but he was so bad at it! 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
Jan 20, 2016 Elaine rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
The Good Lord Bird gets four stars on originality alone, although it is also very enjoyable, and surprisingly moving. In a year when many of the books I've read seem to retread familiar patterns and concerns, the picaresque first-person narrative of a pre-teen cross-dressing (but straight) African-American boy experiencing slavery in the Wild West, John Brown's guerilla campaigns, and encounters with the lodestars of the abolition movement is as much of a bracing pick-me-up as the rotgut whisky ...more
Jan 22, 2014 Abby rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014
James McBride walks a fine line in the National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird.” Treating tragic and painful historical events with humor is risky business. His subject is John Brown and the failed raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry in 1861. Brown was a zealot whose plan to free the slaves bordered on lunacy but McBride succeeds in humanizing him in a rollicking romp of a story that is both irreverent and historically astute.

The narrator is Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old
Aug 01, 2013 Jane rated it it was amazing
Where I got the book: review copy provided by the Historical Novel Society. This review first appeared on the HNS website.

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

McBride introduc
Jan 05, 2014 Cathryn rated it really liked it
It’s on page 251 of James McBride novel The Good Lord Bird that a passage can found which speaks to the whole of this remarkable novel.

The novel, at times irreverent but always historically accurate, tells the tale of Henry Shackleford, a slave boy in Kansas Territory. The fiery abolitionist John Brown arrives in the area in 1856, a year known as Bloody Kansas because of the fighting between anti- and pro-slavery forces. After Brown kills Henry’s master he takes Henry. A case of mistaken identit
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at:

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

Ack. This is a hard review to write. Mainly because I didn’t feel anything while I was reading this story. It generally takes me a
Diane Barnes
Feb 21, 2014 Diane Barnes rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club-2014
This book won the National Book Award, and even though I haven't read the other nominees it was up against, I can see why this was chosen. It takes a little slice of American History, namely John Brown's raids in Kansas territory and his attack on Harper's Ferry in West Virginia, puts human faces and emotions on the raw facts, and makes it come alive. Yes, John Brown was a lunatic, but a lunatic with a cause, which made him a dangerous man. He felt he had been called by God to free the slaves an ...more
Historical novels come in many forms and McBride has gifted us a winner, engaging our every sense and every emotion as we imagine John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that hastened the start of the Civil War. He places the story in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, Onion, a young boy dressed as a girl, who shares his experience and opinions on how that raid came about and why it failed as an insurgency. Living for years with John Brown’s travelling band gave Onion an up close and personal look ...more
Mocha Girl
Jul 22, 2013 Mocha Girl rated it really liked it
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is an adventurous, humorous tale narrated by
Henry Shackleford, a 10 year old slave, who through no fault of his own falls into abolitionist John Brown’s “army” in the Kansas Territory a few years before the infamous Harper’s Ferry Raid.

The novel takes on a “Mark Twain-ish” type of flavor in that touches of irony, satire, and hyperbole are interwoven in the tale from the onset. For example, Henry is mistaken for a “Henrietta” and thrown into a dress and bonne
Having grown up in Kansas, familiar with Brown's stern (and perhaps slightly crazed) visage on the statehouse wall in Topeka, I found this a delightful re-imagining of historical events and people. Told from the perspective of young Henry Shackleford (thought to be a girl because of his dress and appearance and christened The Onion by Brown), this often dark picaresque tale meanders from one adventure to the next, leading up to the misguided attack on Harper's Ferry. Henry/Henrietta proves an ir ...more
Virginia Myers
Jan 28, 2014 Virginia Myers rated it liked it
I have had a difficult time deciding how I feel about this book. I expected to like it for several reasons:

1 – It is a historical novel and I like historical fiction.
2 – It is about John Brown and his raid on the armory in what is now West Virginia and I was born and raised in WV.
3 – I have read other books by this author and liked them very much.

The fact is, however, I felt I could not give it more than a 3 rating because there were parts of the story that caught my interest but there were tim
I do not know where to start. The imagination that James McBride has to have to come up with the idea to create such a protagonist of his novel and to tell the story we know in such a suspenseful way, has to be almost unlimited.

In the same time in this multilevel coming-of-age story, he draws the picture of slavery, so full of shades and details I've never seen before, (interesting video of McBride talking a bit of this aspect of his book,

The humor, ma
Jaime Boler
Oct 01, 2013 Jaime Boler rated it it was amazing

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise himself as a girl and continue the charade for decades. However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird. McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion. Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates
Dec 31, 2013 Barbara rated it it was amazing
McBride is the Quentin Terantino of historical fiction. This is a romp of a story, colorfully written in the linguistic style of a pre-civil war young slave. Written in the first person narrative from a 12 year old boy’s point of view allows McBride to provide the reader with a evocative portrait of a slave’s world pre-civil war. The narrator, Little Onion, is “freed” by John Brown during Brown’s pilgrimage of freeing slaves. The book is about Little Onion’s three years with John Brown (which ar ...more
Carl R.
Sep 24, 2013 Carl R. rated it really liked it
I last read James McBride several years back and loved his Miracle at St. Anna's but somehow didn't return till now. And yes, here I am at last with The Good Lord Bird, McBride's version of the story of John Brown's 1859 attempt to take Harper's Ferry and try to spark an uprising of slaves all over the U.S.

The story is told through the eyes of one Henry "the onion" Shackleford, as told to his congregation mate, Charles D. Higgins of The First United Negro Baptist Church of the Abyssinia in 1921,
Dec 12, 2014 Sue rated it really liked it
I honestly don't know how to describe this book. One reviewer posted "when Mark Twain meets Mel Brooks this is what you get." I read that after finishing so I was not prepared to laugh at many scenes and the guilt that came with it. Slavery and war are horrible and provoke shame but with that comes the opportunity to reflect and learn and grow. It took me awhile to be comfortable with the presentation which is more in the American Folklore tradition than historical fiction.

This was satire pulled
Jan 29, 2014 Nucleosynth rated it really liked it
I started reading The Good Lord Bird as a new, highly recommended historical fiction. Despite James McBride’s compelling account of the events leading up to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, I fell in love with this book for other reasons.

Henry Shackleford, Henrietta Shackleford, and Onion are three facets of the fascinating protagonist. Through Henry, McBride tells the story of a young boy developing into a man in world outside of his control. Through Henrietta, we experience day-to-day life
David Lentz
Jan 29, 2014 David Lentz rated it really liked it
I'm intrigued by McBride's narrative point of view which reminds me of Mark Twain through the eyes of a young slave named Onion. Huck Finn and Onion certainly have much in common in their narrative tone, style, dialect and Twain's novel is clearly a work of genius which has survived the test of time. Because McBride's narrator is a 12 year-old boy, who is disguised as a young girl, McBride keeps the narrative simple so the novel is easy to read and is heavily story-driven: it concerns ultimately ...more
Washington Post
Nov 22, 2013 Washington Post rated it it was amazing
This boisterous, highly entertaining novel presents Henry Shackleford, who claims to be the only black person to have survived John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. As the story begins, Brown mistakes 11-year-old Henry for a little girl, and “Henrietta” becomes the abolitionist’s inspiration. For the next three years, he takes us from adventure to misadventure; from riding the plains with Brown’s Bible-thumping roughnecks to palavering with Harriet Tubman. Against the grim grid of hi ...more
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James McBride is a native New Yorker and a graduate of New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. He is married with three children. He lives in ...more
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“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.” 16 likes
“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.” 10 likes
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