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.
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.
Beyond crafting 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.
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.
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.
The store is told through the eyes of Henry "Onion" Shackleford, the only known outlaw survivor of the raid on Harper's Ferry via memoirs that were written down in the 1940's and stored in a metal box in the kitchen of the First United Negro Baptist Church of the Abyssinia in Wilmington, Delaware.
In the beginning, Henry is an eight-year-old slave in the Kansas territory who encounters John Brown in the tavern where his father is working. An argument between Brown & Henry's owner turns violent, Henry's father is killed and Brown, seeing a chance to free at least one slave takes Henry, who he mistakes for a girl, with him as he flees the scene and nicknames him Onion. In his gender-bending disguise, Henry reports on Brown's raids against the pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and his plans for bigger operations back east. Brown is painted with a broad brush as a man possessed with his mission to end slavery, a religious fanatic who bores his men with his long-winded prayers, and fairly clueless to the realities around him (e.g various characters see through Onion's cross-dressing disguise, but he never does). Other famous characters also are featured with a jaundiced satirical eye, most notably Frederick Douglas who is portrayed as a dyspeptic skirt chaser and bigamist who is all talk and no action.
Onion strikes out on his own for a while, ending up working in a brothel in Missouri. And it is in this section that the most powerful images of what slavery was like are portrayed. He soon, however, is swept back up into Brown's final messianic mission - the raids on Harper's Ferry which was one of the final steps leading up to the Civil War.
Author James McBride has an eye for detail, both of atmosphere and characters and the story moves along a brisk pace, and his National Book Award in 2013 is well deserved.. It's hoped that readers of this book will venture into the non-fiction section of their library and/or bookstore and read more about the colorful John Brown who is not remembered in American history as he should be.
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.
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.
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.