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The Good Lord Bird (2013)

by James McBride

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,5661038,550 (3.9)177
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 177 mentions

English (102)  Piratical (1)  German (1)  All languages (104)
Showing 1-5 of 102 (next | show all)
"The Good Lord Bird" is a fictionalized re-creation of what being with abolitionist John Brown might have been like during his war against slavery. The story is told through the recollections of Henry Shackleford, a pre-teen slave rescued by John Brown. Mistaken as a young girl when liberated, Henry continued to live the lie of being a girl during his years with Brown and his anti-slavery fighters. The story ends approximately five years later following John Brown's unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry.

Brown is portrayed as a somewhat crazed, Bible-quoting religious zealot, driven by his belief that he's doing God's will in his fight against slavery. The language of the characters is written in what I imagine is an attempt to mimic the "slave-speak" of the era. I wouldn't know if the people of that time, both white and black, actually spoke as portrayed, but I do have the sense that the general facts concerning the Harpers Ferry raid were fairly accurate. The story reflects the struggle between the pro and anti slavery movements, and with passions so high on both sides, does make it easy to see how several years later, the Nation was divided by the Civil War.

( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
Comparison to Mark Twain is inevitable for an American satirist adopting 19th-century Missouri dialect. Twain would have pulled his punches where James McBride charges ahead as fearlessly as John Brown. Still, this 21st century reimagining of the Harpers Ferry raid sees folly everywhere, and that's where the twain meet.
  rynk | Jul 11, 2021 |
McBride's Color of Water is one of my all-time favorites. In this novel, he follows the trail of abolitionist John Brown as he gathers his forces to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 via emancipated slave, Henry ("Little Onion") Shackleford. John Brown is a larger-than-life character and optimist/evangelist for the freedom of slaves. Like Panasonic, Brown was slightly ahead of his time, seeking assistance from Frederic Douglass and Harriet Tubman along the way. At times excellent, at times slow, I thought it was a 3.75, which is apparently the Goodreads consensus. ( )
  skipstern | Jul 11, 2021 |
This book was way funnier than I expected it to be, which made it a real joy overall to read. I had to keep reminding myself throughout the book that this is a work of fiction, and from the get-go I realized that I am going to have to do a lot more reading about John Brown's life than I ever learned in school. My two main quibbles are that it was difficult to keep track of all the people coming and going from John Brown's army and that the middle section kind of mucked with the pacing. Otherwise, I am so excited to help host this book as a community read this summer for my library. It will make for some fascinating conversations. ( )
  LibroLindsay | Jun 18, 2021 |
With The Good Lord Bird James McBride has written an interesting and often humorous fictional account of John Brown's escapades from the days of "Burning Kansas" to his demise at Harpers Ferry.

The unlikely narrator of the events chronicled in this novel, those leading up to Brown’s quixotic raid at Harpers Ferry, is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed while Brown is in the process of liberating some slaves. Brown takes the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. Onion, while sounding like a typical 12-year-old often makes observations that belie his age, and his fluidity of gender identity allows him a certain leeway in his life. He comments: "I weren't for being a girl, mind you. But there was certain advantages, like not having to lift nothing heavy, and not having to carry a pistol or rifle, and fellers admiring you for being tough as a boy . . ."(p 78)

And in another episode he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old should have to stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion’s life, but they’re reunited a few months before the debacle at Harpers Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass drinks a bit too much and chases after the nubile Onion.

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.

The book works as an exercise in point of view and has some memorable vignettes of Brown's escapades while continually emphasizing an obsession that almost borders on lunacy. John Brown was definitely not a nice man and it was not surprising that in spite of, or perhaps because of his reputation, he was not joined by the masses of black supporters that he expected when he attempted his epic raid. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 4, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 102 (next | show all)
The book appears to be very random, as though the author and his editor had failed to spot that there are a troublesome number of repetitions and inconsistencies. Brown’s endless praying seems to be a comedic line that McBride has overinvested in.... McBride’s other running joke is that most of the slaves have not the slightest interest in being liberated.... Onion, although occupying hundreds of pages, is never interesting or even fully realised.... After the inevitable tragedy of Harper’s Ferry..., Onion finds his way to Philadelphia and freedom. Unexpectedly, this final section of the book really takes wing and almost redeems what I think is a missed opportunity.
...unpretentious, very funny, and totally endearing.... Still, any comic novel about such a calamitous time is a daring conceit, which in the wrong hands could go painfully wrong. McBride’s America feels huge, chaotic, and very much in formation.... Comparisons to Twain are inevitable, particularly given McBride’s use of vernacular.... But the raucous joy of traveling with Brown and his army also recalls Chaucer and Boccaccio. Brown may not be a polished hero, but he’s certainly an entertaining one, particularly with his band of not-so-merry men and one spunky, cross-dressing kid in tow.
This is a story that popular culture doesn't often visit, and it takes a daring writer to tackle a decidedly unflattering pre-Civil War story. Yet, in McBride's capable hands, the indelicate matter of a befuddled tween from the mid-19th century provides a new perspective on one of the most decisive periods in the history of this country.
added by Muscogulus | editNPR, Bobbi Booker (Aug 23, 2013)
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.... 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.
added by Muscogulus | editKirkus Reviews (Aug 20, 2013)
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)

» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James McBrideprimary authorall editionscalculated
Boatman, MichaelReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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Wikipedia in English (1)

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.

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Book description
Haiku summary
Fettered in bondage
an onion in a red frock
flies from Harpers Ferry to freedom.

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