The Good Lord Bird: A Novel

by James McBride

(Riverhead, $27.95, 432 pages)

Who is this author?

You may recall that James McBride’s award-winning New York Times bestselling novel, “The Color of Water : A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” was the 2003 selection for the One Book For Greater Hartford community reading program, now called One Book One Hartford.

It told the story of his mother, who was born an Orthodox Jew and converted to Christianity, raised 12 children and founded a church. McBride also wrote the bestsellers “Song Yet Sung” and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adapted as a film by Spike Lee.

A former reporter for the Boston Globe, The Washington Post and People magazine, McBride holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. from Oberlin College and also is an accomplished jazz musician, playing tenor sax and leading a 12-piece jazz/R&B band. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and the PBS television character Barney, as well as scores for musicals.

What is this book about?

For his fourth book and third novel, McBride was inspired by the violent offspring of the pre-Civil War abolition movement that was led by the charismatic, and quite likely insane, John Brown. It is told through the eyes of a young slave in Kansas, Henry Shackleford, who joins Brown’s crusade but must pretend to be a girl to stay alive. Nicknamed “Little Onion” and considered a source of good luck by Brown, Henry gets caught up in the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a losing battle that nevertheless helped launch the Civil War.

Why you’ll like it:

History is solemn and serious – and as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So it is with slavery in America and the racial enmity that continues, in one form or another, even to this day. But that doesn’t mean a talented writer cannot tell a story about a slave with humor, as James McBride does in “The Good Lord Bird.” Through Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford’s eyes – the eyes of a boy mistaken for a girl – we see life when slavery was the rule, yet  ferment arose and eventually led to the Civil War. But the book also is a personal history of the coming of age of a young man who views the turmoil with an innocent heart and a sharp mind. McBride tells a deep and satisfying tale, and the humor he deftly employs is the sugar that makes the underlying bitterness palatable.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review  says: “…a magnificent…brilliant romp of a novel about [John] Brown…McBride—with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir, “The Color of Water,” an instant classic—pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page…McBride sanctifies by humanizing; a larger-than-life warrior lands—warts, foibles, absurdities and all—right here on earth, where he’s a far more accessible friend…In [McBride's] hands, John Brown is a wild and crazy old man—and more a hero than ever before “

Says Publishers Weekly: “Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre–Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it,” reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet naïve voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl—a mistake he embraces for safety’s sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown’s violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word “trim” temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him “Onion,” their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, [and] Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves (“hiving bees”) to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided.”

“…Through crackling prose and smart, wryly humorous dialogue, McBride tells his story through the eyes of the slave Henry Shackleford, who as a young boy is kidnapped by Brown during one of his Kansas raids. Wrapping the ugliness of slavery in a pitch-perfect adventure story is more than just a reimagining of an historic event. McBride, as he did in Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, transcends history and makes it come alive.” Says the Chicago Tribune.

James McBride made a gutsy decision when he chose to retell the rather tragic story of John Brown’s failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 as a historical romp with a gender-bending male slave as the great abolitionist’s sidekick. The resulting new novel, The Good Lord Bird, is not only an irrepressibly fun read, but an iconoclastic exploration of a period in American history, the antebellum slave era, that we tend to handle with kid gloves,” says the Seattle Times.

Says Library Journal:

In the turbulent times just before the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown visits the Kansas Territories to free the slaves. In the midst of a gunfight between slave owner Dutch Henry and Brown, a young slave named Henry Shackleford watches his father die. Now freed and under the protection of the wily abolitionist, who mistakes the ten-year-old boy dressed in a potato sack for a girl, Henry maintains this feminine guise as he rides with Brown and his band of volunteers. After becoming separated during a skirmish, Henry finds himself in a Missouri brothel only to rejoin Brown’s ragtag group two years later. Brown takes Henry on a fundraising tour back East, meeting with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Despite John Brown’s reputation for violence, Henry discovers an old man whose intense passion for the abolitionist cause tends to overrule common sense, proving disastrously detrimental as they travel to Harpers Ferry in 1859. Verdict :With its colorful characters caught in tragic situations, McBride’s …faux memoir, narrated by Henry, presents a larger-than-life slice of an icon of American history with the author’s own particular twist.”

“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. … Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. …The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown’s fanaticism increasingly approaches “lunacy” as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he’s doing the Lord’s work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown’s execution. McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown’s activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

McBride’s book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park branch.

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