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.
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).
“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.”
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.
McBride looks at John Brown and Harpers Ferry through the lens of a “freed” slave, Henry Shackleford (known as Onion). Onion narrates the tale, taking the readers from Kansas Territory in 1856 to the events at Harpers Ferry (then in the Commonwealth of Virginia), when abolitionists led by Brown raided the armory in 1859. This was a pivotal event in the onset of the Civil War.
Onion is a fictional character, but there are many real historical figures 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.
Onion recounts for the reader her years living with Old Man Brown and the battles he and his men fought, ending with Harper's Ferry. Part history, part fiction, The Good Lord Bird sheds new light on the years leading up to the Civil War. Good intentions are examined against reality in Onion's innocent, but ever-watching eyes.
I was eager to read The Good Lord Bird because I enjoyed McBride's The Color of Water (1995) and Miracle at St. Anna (2002). However, this novel didn't meet my expectations. McBride is probably the best writer to tell this story, but it was exhausting and often felt repetitive. Part of this is because of my own limited interest in Civil War history. However, there was little character development of either Old Man Brown or Onion throughout the 400+ pages. The narrative progressed but the people didn't.
A true American history buff, through, will find this a captivating read.
"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.
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!
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.
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 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.
But it's not really that simple. McBride has several messages running underneath the plot that make the book so much more awesome. Identity is one, especially given how Onion is viewed by almost everyone as a girl for years. But mostly, there's the idea of how abolitionists such as Brown didn't, perhaps couldn't, really understand those they were trying to help. Brown consistently believes that both enslaved and free blacks will just run over to help him end slavery, little realizing the social and psychological complexities that influence their actions and decisions. With this novel, McBride provides a much different view on anti-slavery efforts than the one we're usually taught that focuses on white abolitionists and a few famous black figures. It turns a pretty good historical novel into an utterly fantastic one.
The story is told from the point of view of a young slave who is mistakenly adopted by John Brown as a girl; the portrait of icons such as Frederick Douglass may or may not be true. The story of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and his activities in Kansas as well as the insanely racist reactions of the locals is all here.
It is about a young slave named Henry, who through a series of events including the 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.
This was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I 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.
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.