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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird (2013)

by James McBride

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1,3018810,028 (3.87)168
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.… (more)
  1. 10
    Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus (novelcommentary)
    novelcommentary: Similar style and time period
  2. 21
    The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (starfishian)
    starfishian: Another historical romp. Fun to read.
  3. 00
    Flashman and the Angel of the Lord by George MacDonald Fraser (Lirmac)
    Lirmac: Another fictionalised account of John Brown and Harper's Ferry.

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» See also 168 mentions

English (87)  Piratical (1)  German (1)  All languages (89)
Showing 1-5 of 87 (next | show all)
This took forever to get going and dragged on, for me. It had moments and the end flies, but i nearly stopped reading twice before soldiering on. ( )
  ThomasPluck | Apr 27, 2020 |
Twelve-year old Henry Shackleford doesn't particularly want to be rescued from his laid back life of slavery; but when his master and his father are both killed in a tavern brawl, legendary abolitionist John Brown insists on bringing Henry along for the skedaddle. Only problem is, Brown thinks Henry's a girl.

The rest of the book follows Henry's unlikely journey as an escaped slave girl, ultimately landing him at the scene of Brown's passionate but ill-planned raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. In turns hilarious and touching, and usually moving along at the hurried clip of a narrow escape, it's a many-faceted portrait of an American folk hero whose story is part history and part myth.

I appreciated McBride's bold re-characterizations of other historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. ( )
  rhowens | Nov 26, 2019 |
I know this book won the National Book Award but it just didn't do it for me. So it started out interesting enough but then it got so repetitive. How many times did the Old Man have to pray for long periods of time. I got so tired of reading about that. It was boring.
I did learn more about Harper's Ferry than what I previously knew so that was good but even that section dragged on forever.
I read about half of the book and put it down for about a month before I finally decided I just needed to finish it. I'm glad I'm done. ( )
  kayanelson | Nov 26, 2019 |
Just plain good. ( )
  John_Danenbarger | Sep 2, 2019 |
It’s always fascinating when a gifted author takes on the challenge of retelling a historical incident – especially one that’s been so mythologized, a lot of the base truth has been lost along the way. (Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time comes to mind.) Often the purpose is to look for answers, but in this case I think McBride’s purpose is to challenge us to ask ourselves whether we have been asking the right questions.

Hopefully, most everyone who read this book will remember something about John Brown, the magnificently bearded zealot who, during the Civil War, plotted to spark and arm a slave uprising by raiding the armory at Harpers Ferry and then passing on the guns to blacks ready to fight for their own freedom. McBride’s work here is to –through a fictionalized observer, a black boy named Onion – flesh out the story with details about the state of the abolitionist movement at the time Brown was at work, information about the inner workings of his “band,” and insights into how the raid on Harpers Ferry was planned and intended to work.

Who’s Onion? He’s a young boy disguised for convenience as a girl who finds herself inadvertently (and unwillingly) absorbed into Brown’s band. (Trust McBride to pile on the social commentary by noting that, in the years preceeding the Civil War, even women had more rights than slaves.) Unlike the rest of Brown’s converts, Onion isn’t a religious zealot called by God to end slavery – he’s just a young black boy trying to stay alive in a world where the only thing he knows for sure is that half the people in the world wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, and the other half wouldn’t do anything to stop it. By casting Onion as the narrator, McBride enables us to witness these mythologized events in unfamiliar, more skeptical way.

Some of the questions raised within the text: If someone is basically making up their own scripture, are their actions in pursuit of those aims religious or merely narcissistic? (In this account, Brown’s actual knowledge of the Bible is questionable.) How did ministers who *did* read and the Bible justify slavery? (McBride incorporates a scene in which a black parishioner confronts the minster who converted her to Christianity.) Is it ever moral to perform evil deeds in the name of good? (For instance, are we okay with Brown slaughtering people just because they own slaves – even those that don’t necessarily condone slavery?) Should blacks be expected to sacrifice themselves for each other just because they share a common fate? (This comes up several times – notably when Sibone sacrfices herself to protect her fellow slaves; again when Brown runs into unexpected difficulty convincing black to join his uprising.) Were Brown’s several victories prior to Harper’s Ferry attributable to his abilities as a general, or was he just stupid lucky? (McBride depicts at least one of his initial skirmishes with government forces as a masterpiece of tactics; others, however, are depicted as chaotic.) And finally – was Brown just a crackpot … or was he, a la Joan of Arc, truly carrying out the will of God as best he knew? (For instance, when Brown warns an adversary that God will smite the gun from his hand, and the gun does actually end up flying out of his hand, should we interpret that as coincidence or divine intervention?)

If you’re looking for answers to any of these, you aren’t going to find them here. What you will find, however, is a complex, well written, and deeply humane exploration of America’s “original sin” from a perspective that isn’t often considered. And while you won’t find any overt references to today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement either, you’d have to be singularly obtuse not to spot the parallels between politics and society then vs. now.

In response to those who argue that the book starts slow, I concur that some chapters may move more briskly than others, but I also urge readers tempted to skip those chapters, or to set aside the book entirely, to persevere. By the time they turn the final page, I predict readers will consider the time and effort they dedicated to pondering the issues raised by this novel to be time well and thoughtfully spent. I know I do.
  Dorritt | Jul 23, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 87 (next | show all)
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.
added by zhejw | editWashington Post, Marie Arana (Aug 19, 2013)
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Rare Negro Papers Found
by A.J. Watson
Wilmington, Del. (AP)
June 14, 1966
A fire that destroyed the city's oldest Negro church has led to the discovery of a wild slave narrative that highlights a little-known era of American history

Chapter 1:
I was born a colored man and don't you forget it.
"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."
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Haiku summary
Fettered in bondage
an onion in a red frock
files from Harpers Ferry to freedom.

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