The Good Lord Bird

by James McBride

Paper Book, 2013

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2013.

Description

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.

Media reviews

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 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.

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 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 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 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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A brilliant blend of history, satire, and great storytelling.
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 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 artistlibrarian
When abolitionist John Brown passes through the Kansas Territory in 1856, he leaves with Henry Shackleford. Henry's master is killed by Brown, leaving the young boy no choice to but travel with Brown and his band of Free Staters. At first glance, Old Man Brown assumes Henry is a girl and Henry, eager to stay alive, quietly announces himself as Henrietta; Brown nicknames her Onion.

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.
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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 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.… (more)
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 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 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 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!!… (more)
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 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 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 Lettypearl
Historical fiction about the abolitionist John Brown, culminating in the events at Harper's Ferry. The story is told from the point of view of a 12 year old former slave, Henry, who John Brown mistakenly believes is a young girl, who he calls Onion. This was very entertaining, in spite of the serious subject matter, and very well-written. The "Good Lord Bird," a woodpecker(?) comes into the story in several places, but the final explanation of it brought me to tears. Thus, I will not attempt to describe or explain it myself. This is an enjoyable book, one of the best I've read all year, and I recommend it to everyone!… (more)
LibraryThing member haidadareads
When Old John Brown comes to Kansas Territory a young slave Henry nicknamed "Little Onion" unwililngly becomes part of his entourage. He pretends to be a girl to stay alive. The story is set in 1856 during the period when the "Yanks" battled the pro-slavers leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859. It wasn't as quick as a read as I thought it would be. However, there were many layers to this story about the fight for freedom and humanity. Mr. McBride was able to blend in some historical facts with myths and superstitions to make some of the story quite laughable.… (more)
LibraryThing member sleahey
After he is orphaned, "Onion" is taken under his wing by John Brown, who believes he will bring good luck and mistakenly assumes he is a girl. The wild ride that ensues describes the guerrilla warrior Brown as he and his tiny band set out to eliminate slavery. Onion is a rapscallion who always seems to survive the impossible, just like Brown, and their hardships don't deter them from their travels and conflicts. As Onion comes of age, he begins to understand the strength of the cause and the importance of his ties to Brown and his family.… (more)
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 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 .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 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 etxgardener
Who would ever suspect that I'd be laughing at a portrayal of pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown? But that was exactly what I was doing, as I read James McBride's brilliant satire of the raid on Brown's rampage through Kansas and his ultimate raid on the armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

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.
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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 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.… (more)
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 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.… (more)
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 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 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 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 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 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!… (more)
LibraryThing member lilibrarian
When John Brown gets his hair cut at Henry's father's barbershop, things go downhill fast - Henry's father is killed, and John Brown "frees" Henry, mistaking him for a girl. For the next several years, "Henrietta" travels with Brown's army of abolitionists, until the fatal events of Harper's Ferry.
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 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 nivramkoorb
This is the first novel that I have read by James McBride. I read it because of the rave reviews and its' nomination for the National Book Award. However, I was a bit disappointed with it and didn't see it as positively as the other LIbrary Thing reviewers. Perhaps because I have read about Brown(try Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks) but I did not find the story compelling. McBride's portrayal of Brown was not expansive enough for me. Here was a man who fathered 22 children but this aspect of his life was shunted to the background. I did enjoy the premise of Henry posing as a girl and the insights into slavery and that time in our history were excellent. However, the narrative dragged in many parts and the book may have worked better for me with some editing. Henry's story was introduced based on it being found in the writings of a church member that was discovered in a Church fire. Yet this aspect was not explored at all so the reader had no further insight into Henry beyond the telling of Brown's story. For someone who knows nothing about Brown, this might be a better read than it was for me. Having read many of this year's "National Book Award" type books, I certainly liked other books that I would place ahead of this one for a nomination(Dog Star by Peter Heller). I wanted to like this book more but did find myself turning the pages to get to the end. Based on this book, I am not sure if I would read any other books by McBride.… (more)

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