The Good Lord Bird

by James McBride

Hardcover, 2013




New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2013.


Fiction. African American Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. 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, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.… (more)

Media reviews

The book appears to be very random, as though the author and his editor had failed to spot that there are a troublesome number of repetitions and inconsistencies. Brown’s endless praying seems to be a comedic line that McBride has overinvested in.... McBride’s other running joke is that most of
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the slaves have not the slightest interest in being liberated.... Onion, although occupying hundreds of pages, is never interesting or even fully realised.... After the inevitable tragedy of Harper’s Ferry..., Onion finds his way to Philadelphia and freedom. Unexpectedly, this final section of the book really takes wing and almost redeems what I think is a missed opportunity.
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5 more
...unpretentious, very funny, and totally endearing.... Still, any comic novel about such a calamitous time is a daring conceit, which in the wrong hands could go painfully wrong. McBride’s America feels huge, chaotic, and very much in formation.... Comparisons to Twain are inevitable,
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particularly given McBride’s use of vernacular.... But the raucous joy of traveling with Brown and his army also recalls Chaucer and Boccaccio. Brown may not be a polished hero, but he’s certainly an entertaining one, particularly with his band of not-so-merry men and one spunky, cross-dressing kid in tow.
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This is a story that popular culture doesn't often visit, and it takes a daring writer to tackle a decidedly unflattering pre-Civil War story. Yet, in McBride's capable hands, the indelicate matter of a befuddled tween from the mid-19th century provides a new perspective on one of the most decisive
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periods in the history of this country.
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In McBride’s version of events, John Brown’s body doesn’t lie a-mouldering in the grave—he’s alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on.... McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown’s
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activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism.
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There is something deeply humane in this, something akin to the work of Homer or Mark Twain. We tend to forget that history is all too often made by fallible beings who make mistakes, calculate badly, love blindly and want too much. We forget, too, that real life presents utterly human heroes with
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far more contingency than history books can offer. McBride’s Little Onion — a sparkling narrator who is sure to win new life on the silver screen — leads us through history’s dark corridors, suggesting that “truths” may actually lie elsewhere.
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McBride’s brilliant romp of a novel... signal[s] a new way of talking — indeed, joking — about race in America today: it is officially O.K. to be boldly irreverent about not just the sacrosanct but also the catastrophic.... First, for all his play, McBride studiously honors history, perhaps
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more than many previous portraits of Brown have done.... Second, “The Good Lord Bird” is not, in the end, a roast of John Brown. Quite the contrary.... McBride... comes not to repulse but to exalt. In his hands, John Brown is a wild and crazy old man — and more a hero than ever before.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
There sure are a heck of a lot of reasons to like The Good Lord Bird. After all, it just won the National Book Award, beating out highly anticipated novels such as Jhumpha Lahiri's The Lowland and George Saunders's Tenth of December, the latest works by perennial favorites like Thomas Pynchon and
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Alice McDermott, and glowingly reviewed books by newer kids on the block Rachel Kushner and Anthony Marra, among others. Many reviewers likened the folksy, vernacular voice of the narrator, Henry Shackleford (aka Onion) to Huck Finn, and everybody loves Mark Twain, right? (Um . . . maybe not.) McBride's memoir, The Color of Water, a remarkable portrait of his mother, had such an impact that it is still being assigned as the freshman summer reading project by many colleges and universities, and he has written several pretty good novels since. And with some recent refocus on the subjects of the American Civil War, slavery, civil rights, and apartheid, the timing for this story of a young slave taken in by abolitionist John Brown couldn't be more timely. In the past year or so, films like "Lincoln," "Twelve Years a Slave," "Django Unchained," "The North Star," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and "The Long Walk to Freedom" have been popular with both critics and the public. The new year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by federal and state governments as well as some public places. It also marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's successful negotiations to abolish apartheid in South Africa and establish multi-racial elections (which saw him elected as the country's first black President). And, of course, we just said farewell to Mandela last month. So general interest in the topics McBride addresses should be pretty high.

Add to that several personal reasons for me to look forward to reading The Good Lord Bird. I've been to Harper's Ferry--several times--and know a bit about John Brown's campaign. I live about a half hour's drive from Gettysburg, where an ancestor has a commemorative statue. Needless to say, I've been there many times, too, and I have a fringe interest in all things Civil War related, barring play-by-play battle descriptions. (By the way, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the great battle that ended the Confederates' invasion of the northern states--and also the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.) In addition, I live in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town that figures prominently in the war, Brown's campaign, and McBride's book. Chambersburg was the northernmost town captured by the Confederates, who burned it down when the citizens refused to pay ransom. It was here that Brown had his famous meeting with Frederick Douglass, which forms an extended chapter in The Good Lord Bird that presents a startlingly different view of the man than we get from history books or other novels--for example, Colum McCann's Transatlantic, which I read (and loved) earlier this year. At several points in the novel, Onion is advised to head north to Chambersburg, to "the railroad." One of the few remaining period buildings in Chambersburg that wasn't totally burned down is the old stone jail. I've been there, too, and I've seen the hiding place for runaway slaves. I also lived in Missouri for six years, which is where Onion and Brown's story begins, and I've been to some of the relevant historic sites there as well. So this was a book that I knew I could relate to, understand, even picture vividly in my mind.

So what went wrong? And what went right? Let's start on the plus side. McBride seems to have gotten the basic outline of what led up to the debacle at Harper's Ferry right--with, of course, some necessary liberties taken to give the novel interest, such as Onion's role in Brown's ultimate defeat. If you've read anything about the book, you know that 12-year old Henry gets caught in a dangerous situation in which his father gets killed, and he puts on a dress in hopes of escaping a similar fate; this is how Brown (and nearly everybody else except the black women he encounters) comes to think he is a girl. As a narrator, Henry brings an innocence and raw truth that are refreshing; he doesn't think too far beyond the immediate moment and his own survival, which is fairly typical of a child. His folksy speech apparently reminds a lot of readers of Huck Finn. I have to admit that I'm no fan of Twain, and at times I found some of the turns of speech annoying, especially when overused (like the fourth or fifth time Henry refers to eating as throwing something down his "little red lane"--just too cutesy for words).

As to other characters, most of them were underdeveloped. I expected Brown (called "the Old Man" by Henry) to be depicted as a one-note madman, and he was, although at one point Henry admits that he was a gifted strategist and would have done well in the army. The majority of the white people in the novel could pretty much be summed up as brutal, selfish, appetite-driven, and cowardly. Blacks, both slave and free, don't fare a whole lot better, although they are generally forgiven due to the circumstances under which they have to live. They use one another. They're suspicious of one another. They turn each other in. They prefer the relative security of slavery to the unpredictability of the freedom struggle. The portrait of Douglass is broadly comic, but I'd be surprised if some readers don't find it degrading and disrespectful, and I'm not quite sure why McBride chose to depict him in this way. Thankfully, Harriet Tubman gets somewhat better treatment.

The book's greatest flaw, for me, was its repetitiveness, especially all those darn skirmishes (which made up the bulk of its pages). The men go down the hill and shoot. The men go up the hill and get shot at. The men go into a tavern and get shot at. The men hide in the trees and shoot. The men cross a stream and get shot at. Yaaawwwwn. Maybe McBride was trying to make a point about the nature of war, but I don't think so; I sensed that he was trying to make this seem suspenseful. It wasn't. Even the final scenes at Harper's Ferry--well, I just wanted to get it over with.

So that explains my mediocre rating. I didn't hate The Good Lord Bird, but I wouldn't recommend it either. And I'm still not sure how it won the National Book Award over a wonderful novel like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (which was longlisted but didn't make it as a finalist) or Transatlantic (which was ignored altogether).
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LibraryThing member msf59
“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.”

“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
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ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.”

A young slave, named Henry Shackleford, is living in the Kansas territory, in 1857. It was a volatile area, in a volatile time, with slavery being the hot-button issue. Enter, John Brown, an infamous abolitionist, who ends up mistaking Henry for a girl and steals the boy away from his master, nicknaming him Little Onion.
Henry remains, in the disguise as a girl, as a safeguard and ends up traveling with Brown and his gang. Finally ending up at the fateful events at Harper's Ferry.
This novel caught me by surprise. A mix of historical figures, like Brown, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, blended in with fictional characters. It is bold, funny, adventurous, deadly serious and highly readable. More Little Big Man than Cloudsplitter, or The Confessions of Nat Turner. Good stuff.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
A young boy disguised as a girl accompanies John Brown and his ragtag band of abolitionists, including the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. The Brown family were all involved in abolition and several of his sons accompanied their father on the raid. This amazing man also had the time to sire 22
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children by two wives, so despite his religious rants, poor hygiene and eating habits and devotion to the cause, he apparently did find time for pleasure too! The author creates an intriguing, fanciful tale using the character affectionately called onion to show us what it may have been like for John Brown's followers. Based on history but somewhat tongue in cheek, it is enjoyable from both an historic and humorous perspective. I really enjoyed the ride!!
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Book on CD performed by Michael Boatman.

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

Onion is a fictional character, but there are many real historical figures in the book. In addition to John Brown and his sons, Harriet Tubman, Col Lewis Washington and Frederick Douglass make appearances. And while McBride may have taken liberties in describing “The Railman” and his involvement, it is true that the first casualty of the raid on the arsenal was a free black man.

What brings the history to life, though is the slave boy, Henry “Onion” Shackleford. A chance encounter with Brown in his father’s barbershop goes awry, and in the confusion, he is taken on by Brown, who mistakenly believes the child is a girl. Brown considers Onion a good luck charm, and he cares for the child. Onion continues to live as a girl for the next three years, sometimes being in the direct care of Brown, and sometimes being separated from him. Always, Henry is a marvelous observer of what is going on around him. He doesn’t always understand the ramifications of what he learns, but he does his best.

He believes that Brown is a fanatic and possibly crazy, but he also recognizes Brown’s genuine belief that slavery is wrong and that it should be abolished. He follows Brown’s rag tag “army” helping where he can, but mostly trying to stay out of the way. Related by Onion, many of the events are just plain hilarious; a surprise in a book about slavery. I’ve seen reviews that compare McBride to Mark Twain, and I guess I see that here – an adventure tale that is about a serious event / issue, but that includes room for humor.

I love McBride’s writing, but this seemed ungainly in places. I kept waiting for the “action” to happen, especially in the period when Henry was separated from Brown. And I thought some of the proselytizing that Brown engages in was unnecessary, though I admit that it helps to paint the picture of this MAN-WITH-A-CAUSE.

Michael Boatman does a superb job voicing the audiobook. He is able to give unique voices to the many characters, and I particularly like the way he voiced John Brown and Henry. McBride uses vernacular dialect of the time, and listening to that is (in my humble opinion) a bit easier than reading it on the page.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
I am so very happy with The Good Lord Bird. I wasn't drawn to reading this book previously but it caught my eye this year as a possible book to read because it was a ToB (Tournament of Books) winner in 2014 and I had decided to read the winners and it also was published 2013 so it fit the PBT for
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September. It is also a National Book Award winner in 2013. I read Cloudsplitter earlier this year and was pleasantly surprised to find this book was also about John Brown and Harper's Ferry. Where Cloudsplitter was told from John Brown's son, Owen's POV, this book was told from a slave's, Henry or Onion's POV. Having read it following Cloudsplitter which was not entirely an accurate historical fiction, I found this book to have a lot of similarities. I listened to the audio (from overdrive) and it was very well done. There was some great quotes, this was one of my favorites
"Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world."
I think this work is significant in that it is a retelling of an important time in history and racism in the United States told by a black man. I liked the dialect and the narrator did a good job. The author's work has been compared to Mark Twain. I am happy I read it so close to having read Cloudsplitter by Russel Bank. I found the plot to be engaging and felt it held together. I suspect it wasn't totally accurate to the time but neither was Cloudsplitter. The characters were great, the settings include Kansas, the east (Frederick Douglas), Canada (Harriet Tubman) and of course Harper's Ferry which included a very brief mention of General Lee. Because I am comparing this book to Cloudsplitter, they very much were in agreement with each other in how the story was told. I listened to the book, the narration was good, I can not comment on how readable it was but it had the feel of being very readable. The title was significant and refers to the Ivory Billed (probably extinct now) Woodpecker that a person would exclaim "Good Lord" if they ever got a chance to see it. The cover is a little busy but it does feature a hat with the feather from the Good Lord Bird. The author's goal in writing the story of Harper's Ferry and John Brown was to do so differently and he did it with humor. I would give this book 5 stars. I think it was excellent.
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LibraryThing member literary.jess
"The Good Lord Bird" is a coming of age adventure story in the spirit of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Lamb". The story follows the exploits of Henry, who at age 10 is "kidnapped" from slavery by John Brown, the storied abolitionist. Immediately mistaken for a girl by Brown, Henry
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eventually finds safety in assuming the role of Henrietta/Little Onion. The novel is full of twists and turns, with enough historical facts thrown in to keep a Civil War buff entertained. Like Huck and Biff, McBride's Little Onion is not an entirely sympathetic or even likable character; he is flawed and trying to do what is necessary to survive, following his own moral compass through some less-than-ideal situations. He has many faults, but I came to love him for them. I appreciated McBride's ability to combine character work, history, and humor in one novel that doesn't feel too heavy.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Told through the eyes of a young slave girl who is called Little Onion" by the abolitionist John Brown, the story shows Brown's belief that Brown is infallible, sent by God to free the slaves. But like his infallibility, not is as it seems. Little Onion's real name is Henry, but Henry finds hiding
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his true identity to his advantage. There are lots of turns and twists in Little Onion's story. Rambunctious and far ranging in his story, Henry meets a real variety of western inhabitants, both free and slave, black and white. I listened to the audio version which was very well done.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I want to say something meaningful here, but I am at a loss. All I've got is "this was so good!" Onion is such a magnificent character and a superb narrator. The characters were so real and so complex, that I was able to view the doings in Harpers Ferry from a new perspective. Tragic, heroic,
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botched, bravely executed, all true. Rather than listing superlatives I will just say that this is a book you (whomever you might be) really ought to read.
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LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A brilliant blend of history, satire, and great storytelling.
LibraryThing member JaneSteen
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
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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 introduces a fictional character into Brown’s small band of followers: the boy Henry Shackleford, who, in a hilarious moment of confusion, takes on a new identity as a girl and finds it too difficult, or frequently too convenient, to shake off. Henry’s lie is clearly identified with the much bigger lie every black character has to assume in order to survive in a world of slavery and endemic racism, while the white characters appear blind to many different levels of truth. Even John Brown, whom Henry admires as an unstoppable force of nature, is seen by him as changing the truth to fit his own views, particularly in his lack of understanding that the slaves he is trying to free are often far more concerned about simple survival than about his principles.

The Good Lord Bird takes the iconic events of Brown’s crusade and puts them in a different light, both cruder and more nuanced than the standard story, with unfaltering pace and writing that is finely lyrical even when the characters’ voices are vulgar. The constant use of the word ‘nigger’ may challenge some readers, while others may dislike the dark humor of life on the edge of society. It’s likely this novel will draw strong reactions, and for that reason I would recommend it as a must-read to those interested in American history. Time will tell, but given the writing and subject matter, it has the potential to be one of the significant novels of 2013.
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LibraryThing member Lightfantastic
One of the most memorable main characters ever - Onion (the name of the character) shatters the noble slave cliche, and in creating him, McBride has given us a gift for the ages. Read this and prepare to have your world expanded.
LibraryThing member mclane
This is one of the best works of historical fiction I have ever read! Told through the eyes of Henry (Henrietta) Shackleford (Onion), this is the story of abolitionist John Brown, from the time he was terrorizing the frontier territories of Kansas, Missouri and Iowa on behalf of the Free Staters up
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to and including his infamous and ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Henry is swept up into John Brown's band when he is ten years old in1856, and travels with Brown (who mistakenly thinks he is a girl) until the tragedy of Harper's Ferry in 1859. Every single character in this book, including John Brown and his sons, Frederick Douglass, assorted prostitutes, gunmen, slaves, free people of color, and most especially Henry, leap off the page as believable living, breathing people. And who knew that a book about terrorism, murder and revolution could be so laugh-out-loud funny! This is a most enjoyable must-read for anyone interested in a fictional yet believable account of this period in American history. Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member bookmuse56
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
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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 winning this round, Henry is scooped up into the folds of John Brown and his crusade, and in the confusion is mistaken for a girl and called Onion. Onion is the perfect combination of youthful naivety and savvy with a dollop of mischief to capture the searing morally complex issues of race and identity of the times.

A consummate storyteller, McBride effectively uses sly humor and erudition, along with lyrically rich yet precisely raw language to keep the reader fully engaged in the exploits though we already know what happens at Harper Ferry in 1859. A combination of fictional and real characters highlights both that often issues are not just black and white but many variations in-between the spectrum and it is often an event that will force a person to move from the gray area to one of the ends, and success is often not the event itself but its legacy effect on what comes after.

As a fan of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh look at a pivotal point in our history and the often flawed nature of historical figures. This book is thought-provoking and thought-challenging and long with masterful pacing, intriguing characters, and writing purposely insightful will hold the reader’s attention well past the last page.
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LibraryThing member ddirmeyer
James McBride has a rare gift - the ability to craft a sentence with such skill that I find myself going back to relish the sentence multiple times. I was thrilled to find this skill apparent from the onset of this novel and continued to be amazed by his talent until the last page.

Beyond crafting
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individual sentences that caught my attention, McBride went further in this novel to bring to life pre-civil war life in America. His story centers around Henry Shackelford, a young and small slave boy who is "freed" by abolitionist John Brown. At this time, Brown mistakes Henry for a girl and erroneously thinks his name is Henrietta. Soon after, Henry's nickname of "The Onion" is also conceived. McBride's novel is told from The Onion's point of view and we quickly learn that the life of a freed black girl doesn't differ in many ways from an enslaved black boy.

McBride skillfully weaves a good amount of humor into what would otherwise be a grueling and dismal time in our country's history. He does it with care and compassion and we certainly aren't left wondering if he is trivializing the exploits of any of the characters in his book.

His character development is also rarely equalled. McBride masterfully shows us the good and bad in all of his characters. Seemingly trusted characters can greatly mislead and those from whom you would expect to learn very little have the most to teach.

Quickly engrossed by the novel, I did find some parts near the middle to drag. If his writing style was not so entertaining in itself, the slow pace at times would have hampered my enjoyment of the book more.

Once finished with the book, I found myself researching and learning more about John Brown and the historical events and places McBride used in his story. Any novel that leaves me thirsty for more I would have to classify as a success.

I would, and already have, highly recommend this book to anyone.
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LibraryThing member pinklady60
The story centers around Henry, nicknamed Little Onion, a slave boy who lives as a girl when a fight ensues and he leaves town with John Brown, the American abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. At times, the book
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portrays Brown as a hero and visionary, at other times as a madman who has a few loose screws.

Set in the years immediately before the Civil War, the first person narrative with vivid descriptions of living conditions of the time, made the story feel authentic.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
James McBride tells the story of James Brown in a somewhat daring way, the voice of a young boy captured and thought to be a girl as part of a raid in Kansas. McBrides' slant of Brown is as a fanatic, intense, almost senile leader of his pack of dirty, hungry bunch, which is what I remember as a
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young kid learning about him. The conversations were hard to read and Browns' ramblings caused me to skip over them as did the men he was leading. Maybe this was on purpose. The characters were fascinating and the combination of daring, cowardice, ingenuity, and need was well done. The story was mostly true, and when I'm done, as is true with most historical fiction, I'm then on a search to find out the real story. Mostly the book is very interesting and really shows the way it probably really was in that time. Thanks again librarything for letting me read this as an early reviewer.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
In the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown hit the state of Kansas like a tornado. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were already at each other's throats by the time Brown arrived to avenge the sacking of Lawrence by a pro-slavery mob, but soon his name would strike fear and loathing into the
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hearts of the state's pro-slavers. His story does not easily lend itself to comedy, but much of The Good Lord Bird, James McBride's fictional account of Brown's attempt to start an armed slave rebellion in the South, is as funny as it is serious.

Told through eyes of Henry Shackleford, a little slave boy whom Brown mistakes for a girl, the novel offers a factually accurate portrayal of Brown's deeds and end that is somewhat distorted by the innocence of its narrator. Because Henry (who pretends to be "Henrietta" for almost the entirety of the book) is telling the story, all the characters, when they speak, do so in the vernacular and tone of a little black boy who has lived his entire life within the confines of one tiny Kansas community. Admittedly, the conversations can be a little jarring at times but they are a constant reminder that everything is being filtered through the eyes of a child.

James McBride is a master of characterization and the beauty of The Good Lord Bird comes from the distinct personalities he creates for Brown, several of his sons and one of his daughters (Brown fathered 22 children by two wives), Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and so many of the fictional characters with whom they interact. McBride's approach, as is generally the case with the best historical fiction, is a vivid reminder that history is more than facts and dates. It is about real people who had the same hopes and dreams that motivate people today, and seldom was their story as black and white as it appears in history books.

By story's end, a rather beautiful bond has developed between John Brown and his "little Onion," and their relationship is one that readers will long remember. The child grows close to a slow-witted son of Brown's, falls in love (still disguised as a girl child) with one of Brown's daughters, is awed by the persona of Harriet Tubman, and forms a rather disparaging opinion of Frederick Douglas whom he/she sees as more politician than activist. Almost lost in the story is the tragic end that Brown inflicts upon himself, members of his family, and others who believe as he does.

Bottom Line: The Good Lord Bird is an excellent piece of historical fiction that revisits one of the key events and periods in American history. Readers will, I think, find it helpful to remind themselves of the key elements of John Brown's history beforehand as it adds a certain amount of tension to the book's reading.
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LibraryThing member theeccentriclady
I received this book as a Librarything Early Reviewer. I thought the premise sounded good when I picked it but it never really came together for me. Maybe because I read it in 1 hour increments over several weeks because I could not get excited about picking it back up. I felt like there were a lot
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of repetitive parts early on that could have been left out after the first description. Like how much and how long Captain Brown prayed. I read this at least 20 times. Now that I have finished the book I really don’t remember why Onion was dressed like a girl and he does not talk about his later life as a woman and I could have sworn he alludes to this earlier in the story and acts like we will learn more later. That being said, on the historical side, it was interesting to see the events presented from a characters point of view who was involved in the periphery. I was not very familiar with John Brown and Googled him and found the popular opinion to be negative but after reading this account I found myself thinking of him more favorably (if it is possible to think favorably about a murder) in that he had a mission and he was passionate like other historical figures who have done worse. Was he a failure? Maybe not, I began to see him as John the Baptist. John Browns role was to prepare the way not to actually abolish slavery.
I did find two quotes in the book to be words of wisdom we all need to think about.
“I’d gotten used to living a lie-being a girl-it come to me this way: being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world. But somehow, setting on the bench of that porch, conversating with her, watching the sun go down over the mountains above the Ferry, made me forget ‘bout what was covering me and the fact that the Old Man was aiming to get us all minced to pieces. I come to the understanding that maybe what was on the inside was more important, and that your outer covering didn’t count so much as folks thought it did, colored, white, man or woman.”
“A body can’t prosper if a person don’t know who they are.”
I guess all in all the book did make me think, I did learn some things I did not know and the book made me look deeper into the internet for more information. These are all things that I enjoy when I am reading. I like to have my mind opened to new thoughts and to learn. This is just one of those books you are either going to like or not like depending on what style of writing you enjoy. It just won’t be one I will be raving about to all my friends but I can say if you think you would enjoy a frolicking, rambling, adventure, told in a young slave’s poor vocabulary. A story about the price of freedom and what it means to be human then give it a try!
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LibraryThing member Alexander19
I started reading this a few days before the National Book Award ceremony, so obviously because I was reading it I was routing for it to win. I screamed aloud when it did, knowing it fully deserved the recondition.

It is about a young slave named Henry, who through a series of events including the
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death of his father, has been paired with the crazy religious abolitionist Old John Brown. Old Brown mistakes Henry for a girl and renames him The Onion.

I will say that I did not think this book would be as good as it was, but it was amazing. One of the best, if not THE best book of the year. The story that a now old man Henry (The Onion) tells is one of the wildest and entertaining stories that I've ever had the pleasure to read.
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LibraryThing member RaucousRain
This is an engrossing tale about a young slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to survive. We meet Henry/Henrietta (aka Little Onion) a number of years prior to the Civil War. His fictional story intertwines with John Brown's life at that time -- leading up to Brown's very real raid on
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Harper's Ferry.

Over the past year, I have read about a dozen books (both fiction & nonfiction) on the Civil.War. Some were older and others more recently published -- but all came highly recommended. I must say The Good Lord Bird is one of the best yet! James McBride has written a wonderfully engaging piece of believable well-researched fiction.
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LibraryThing member mausergem
This story is set some time before the American Civil War. This was a time when abolitionists roamed the country and freed slaves. We follow such an abolitionist called John Brown. He frees a small boy who disguises as a girl and stays with John Brown. John Brown is deeply religious and very
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dedicated to the idea of a free state. To this end he roams the country and tries to get funding and men to fight. He even rouses up colored people to fight for their freedom. The big plan is to raid an armory and arm the colored which makes up for a grand finale.

The book is meant to be funny, a satire and does a good job of it. In the first half it just rambles on here and there but the last third makes up for it. The only disadvantage was that the events are so remote that it's not relatable. An average read.
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LibraryThing member caalynch
I truly enjoyed The Good Lord Bird. It was a fresh take on historical fiction and the story of John Brown and his famous raid on Harper's Ferry. Told from the perspective of a kidnapped slave who pretends to be a girl, the story was witty, gritty, adventurous, and compassionate. I appreciate how
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McBride presented a diverse cast of black characters who were real people trying their best to survive. The story was well paced and really pulled me in once the planning on Harper's Ferry began; very suspenseful! This is a must for anyone who wants to get a history lesson in a new way.
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LibraryThing member .Monkey.
Wow, what to say about this book? I waited a few weeks to write this review, hoping that I would come up with the words, but it seems that won't really be happening, so I'll just try to do my best and see what tumbles out.

This was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I
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laughed, I cried, I learned, I loved. I was already a James McBride fan, having read The Color of Water many years ago and Miracle at St. Anna more recently, and was expecting another 4, 4.5-star piece of work. But what I read just blew me away. Even though I have next to nothing in common with any of the characters (merely the same desire for equality found in some of them), somehow they just really resonated with me and I absolutely loved them. What is there to even say about Onion? Cowardly and selfish, but just trying to stay alive in a cruel world, and bringing us a bit of hard eye-opening insight while doing so. Likewise, though The Captain is a rather comical eccentric character, he is also incredibly moving in his devotion to the cause and in his refusal to do anything but what he knows in his heart to be right.

McBride's writing is just so emotive, so powerful, you can't help but become completely wrapped up in the scenarios he plays out before your eyes. It takes the best writing where, even when you know from the start how things are going to end (I mean, who doesn't know about John Brown? In fact, that's pretty much the only thing most of us do know about the man), while you read you keep hoping beyond hope that somehow things will wind up differently. That Brown will somehow go on, triumphantly, to see half the country pick up his war. And then, when history doesn't change, McBride still manages to warm your heart and make you see that it had to be this way, even if it hurts a bit.

Simply amazing.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction in 2013. It is the 55th such winner I have read. It tells the story of Henry Shackleford, a 12-year-old slave boy who gets involved with John Brown in Kansas. Through most of the book the boy is dressed as a girl and most of the people in the book
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think he isa girl. But he always has a boy's outlook. The story gets more interesting when John Brown's theater of operations shifts to Virginia, and the doings of John Brown in Virginia are thoroughly explained, with I think not too much change as to historical fact. The boy comes to admire Brown, even though he reognizes how unbal;anced he is. Some view the book as comic, but I did not so find it. In the course of the novel the boy meets with historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass (not admiringly portrayed in the novel) and Harriet Tubman. The book, finishing as it does with John Brown's doings in Virginia, finishes strong and the ending is not unhappy, despite the end which John Brown comes to, though I would have liked to have more of what became of the narrator-hero, Henry.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I listened to the audio edition of this novel and the marvelous narration by Samuel L. Jackson enhanced the experience significantly. The author's choice to create a character and set him at the center of John Brown's quest to free the slaves was a perfect way to bring the entire plotting of the
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raid on Harper's Ferry to life. "Onion", the protagonist and narrator, is a young boy masquerading as a girl. He is a memorable character whose antics bring a touch of humor to a very serious story. Just as Onion's understanding of the abolitionist movement matures during his time with John Brown, so does the reader gain insight into the complicated dynamics at play at this period just prior to the Civil War.
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