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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is about a slave boy, Henry Shackleford, who becomes part of John Brown’s antislavery movement. Henry, the main character, is also the narrator. The story is set in Kansas, 1857, a period in which there was a serious debate regarding slavery. On one occasion, John Brown visits Henry’s hometown. During his visit, Brown disagrees with Henry’s master and the two start fighting. During the fight, Henry’s father is killed. Brown, being the abolitionist that he is, decides to leave town with Henry. They leave together, but Brown thinks that Henry is a girl.

For many months, Henry hides his identity to survive. John Brown calls him Little Onion. The two go on several missions. For instance, in 1989, they were both part of the blitz that occurred at Harpers Ferry. The raid was one of the major causes of the Civil War. Despite Henry now living as a free person, he misses the days that he was a slave. Back in Kansas, he was never mistreated or beaten. He always had a decent meal. Henry regrets leaving with Brown because things were much easier before he appeared in his life.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492

Author: James McBride (b. 1957)

Publisher: Riverhead (New York). 417 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1856–1859

Locales: Kansas, Missouri, Virginia

Humorous in the manner of Mark Twain, The Good Lord Bird is a fictional story (though carefully shaded with real historical detail) about the abolitionist John Brown told through the eyes of a young freed slave called Onion.

In her review for the New York Times, Baz Dreisinger called James McBride's The Good Lord Bird the work of a "modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page." Dreisinger's comparison to the nineteenth century satirist is on point; The Good Lord Bird delights as it provokes, and its plot, careening out of Kansas with real-life abolitionist John Brown, bears the zip of a classic adventure novel. Behind the humor is the horror of slavery but, as Dreisinger noted, McBride's cartoonish characters manage to communicate the complexity of that misery better than any straight portrait. Take Henry Shackleford, McBride's youthful protagonist. Henry is an enslaved ten-year-old in 1856, working alongside his father at a barbershop in Kansas near the Missouri border. When the infamous John Brown walks in for a haircut, he ends up getting himself into trouble for his antislavery views. A scuffle becomes a shoot-out and Henry's father is killed in the crossfire; his last words are misinterpreted by Brown, who then assumes that Henry is a girl named Henrietta. (The fact that Henry was wearing a burlap sack aids Brown in this assumption.) The circumstances under which Henry is perceived to be a girl are farcical—as are the circumstances under which Henry receives the nickname Onion after eating Brown's vegetal good luck charm—but the masquerade is a perfectly crafted vehicle for McBride's subtextual points about passing and identity. (Onion is also biracial, which allows him to pass, in at least one situation, as a white woman.) In the book, only black women can see through Onion's ruse, though they never spill the beans. ("Some colored women just had my number," he says. "But this was during bondage time. And when you in bondage, you is drowning, in a manner of speaking. You no more pay attention to the getup of the feller next to you than you do to the size of his shoes if he got any, for both you is drowning in the same river.") Black men and white people, including John Brown, see Onion as he presents himself—as a girl—if indeed, they really see him at all. "Being a Negro's a lie, anyway," Onion says later, "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."

James McBride is an award-winning novelist and journalist. He is also a musician. His memoir about his relationship with his mother, The Color of Water (1996), was a national best seller. The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award in 2013.

(© Chia Messina)

McBride told Julie Bosman for the New York Times that, in writing the book, he was captivated by the story of Brown, but wanted to find a way to portray him from a different angle. That angle—Onion's point of view—serves its purpose and then some. His nebulous identity allows him access to different sides of a number of worlds at odds: men and women, freed and enslaved, black and white, even poor and wealthy. Such glimpses offer a fuller portrait of the time in which Brown died, which was a time of palpable tension. If the violent clash between proslavery supporters and free staters in the 1850s was the equivalent of pouring gasoline all over the country, Brown's raid in 1859 was a lit match. Slave owners were afraid that their slaves would catch wind of all the talk of freedom happening in the Northeast and rebel—and often preemptively punished them to discourage them from doing so. Slaves themselves either plotted their escape or lived in fear of being persecuted for crimes that they didn't commit. Brown's admittedly half-cocked raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry in Virginia managed to exacerbate every angle of this fragile balance. Brown was a deeply religious man—an aspect of his personality which McBride parodies with a deft hand—and believed in atonement through blood for the sins of slavery. He killed cruelly and without remorse, believing that he was acting out the will of God. Brown's methods were violent, but his way of thinking was a stark departure from the orators of the day who tried to end slavery from behind a podium or a pulpit. Brown was a man of action. Brown's activity is underlined by McBride's ridiculous depiction of Frederick Douglass which Hector Tobar for the Los Angeles Times called "downright sacrilegious." (Douglass's attempt to seduce "Henrietta" is one of the funniest scenes in the book, even if it is at odds with the speaker's revered image.) In real life, Douglass thought the plan to raid the armory was suicidal, which it indeed turned out to be, but the way Onion tells it, Douglass's refusal to support Brown amounted to the worst kind of betrayal.

According to McBride's tale, the only person who surpasses Brown in passion for the cause is Harriet Tubman. A born leader, she rallies the freemen in Canada, saying, "And you setting here on the doorstep of change, scared to walk through it? I ought to take a switch to some of you. Who's a man here? Be a man!" The incident marks one of many milestones in Onion's journey to young adulthood. As a child, Onion is selfish, more concerned with his next meal than with anyone else. He spends more time scheming his escape from Brown than trying to help him, but his frustration with his disguise begins to fester. His infatuation with a woman named Pie nags at his conscience, as does another infatuation with Annie, one of Brown's young daughters. But ultimately love is not the only thing that spurs him to a final moral action. Onion decides that he is tired of living a lie, and with this revelation in regard to his identity he finds clarity. For Onion, claiming his identity is equivalent to claiming his freedom. Early on, he muses that he was better off as a slave with food to eat and a warm bed than as a member of Brown's starving, ragtag crew. But his love for Annie leads him to a larger truth: "If you can't be your own self, how can you love somebody?" he asks. "How can you be free?"

The novel is narrated by a much older Onion, ostensibly to a fellow Sunday school teacher in the early 1940s. In the manner of many a great novel, the bulk of the book purports to be a document discovered in a church basement years after that. McBride's story about Onion is fiction, but it is painstakingly crafted with real historical detail from Brown's Kansas raids to his visit with Frederick Douglass to the complexity and mismanagement of the fateful raid itself. Good historical fiction values historical accuracy above all else, but the best historical fiction provides a lens through which to view the present. The Good Lord Bird does just that. The title refers to a rare species of woodpecker that, according to Brown's son Frederick, is "so pretty that when man sees it, he says, 'Good Lord.'" But this image is transformed in the book's last pages when Brown explains to Onion how the bird works to fell dead trees so that new ones can grow. An earlier passage recalls a certain quote about the arc of history. "Some things in this world just ain't meant to be, not in the times we want 'em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that's to come," Onion muses. "There's a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that's a heavy load to bear."

Review Sources

  • Arana, Marie. Rev. of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. Washington Post. Washington Post, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  • Booker, Bobbi. "A Little Onion Reveals Layers Of History In 'Good Lord Bird.'" Rev. of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. NPR Books. NPR, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  • Bosman, Julie. "Traveling with John Brown along the Road to Literary Celebrity." New York Times. New York Times, 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  • Dreisinger, Baz. "Marching On." Rev. of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. New York Times Sunday Book Review. New York Times, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  • Memmott, Carol. Rev. of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  • Tobar, Hector. "'The Good Lord Bird' Is a Twisted Take on an Abolitionist's Story." Rev. of The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
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