Book Review: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird

Posted January 1, 2014 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird

on August 20, 2013 and has 417 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A young slave boy who does what he must to survive in 1856 Kansas when caught between slavery and anti-slavery forces.

The Good Lord Bird won an award in 2014 for The Rooster – The Morning News Tournament of Books and nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction. In 2013, it was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction and the Paris Review Best of the Best.

My Take

A rescue that leads to an inside look at the thinking of John Brown and his ever-changing troop with their sacrifice, belief, and a sometimes misguided passion. You’ll certainly appreciate how different Brown’s campaign may have been if he’d had a blog!

It’s a softer, gentler look at John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. Pre-war. Pre-Civil War that is. From the perspective of a child who don’t got no dog in this hunt. Yes, Onion is a slave, and s/he wants to go back there in some ways. It was so much easier and warmer with more food, and yet Onion stays. Fascinated by this inside look at John Brown and his religious fervor, his strategizing, his belief in people.

It’s curious that everyone keeps promoting the fact that Onion was really a boy dressing as a girl, and McBride does remember to play this up every once in awhile, but it really doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s more as if it were added as a convenience so Henry/Onion doesn’t have to partake in the more violent aspects of John Brown careering across the countryside, although it doesn’t seem to have hindered him/her that much. It was an interesting disguise when Onion was in the Douglass household. And maybe its purpose was too subtle for me. It did rise up here and there, but someone will have to explain why it was an important addition to me, and I’ll likely be thinking oh, okay, yeah… then.

The man was unstable, but he surely had the right end goal in mind. I kept wishing that wiser heads had prevailed over Brown’s decisions, and yet the ending felt right. At least in the way McBride set it. Now I’m curious to go back and explore this. To find out if Brown truly was this big a nutcase, if the end truly did affect our world. Was Fredrick Douglass as McBride portrayed him?

Again, I know it’s currently PC to not use dialect. And I’m so grateful McBride did. It brings such a flavor to the story, that mere telling us that he is speaking a dialect cannot convey. It’s a fine line to walk. Not abusing the dialect that readers must struggle to figure out what’s being said, to straddle that line between making the character look stupid or real while relaying a character’s social status, his or her origins, and level of education. So much can be said with dialect that otherwise a writer must struggle to show and not tell.

I did enjoy McBride’s prologue, very cute. You’ll fall into McBride’s descriptions as well, a combination of high-falutin’, down home, and vivid. How can you resist phrases like:

“Just when he seemed to wrap up one thought, another come tumbling out and crashed up against the first, and then another crashed up against that one, and after a while, they all bumped and crashed and conmingled against one another till you didn’t know who was who and why he was praying for it…”

There’s insight into the mind of slaves that’ll depress the heck out of ya, even as you realize that it’s a way they must act to survive. And what that says about white people just ain’t right, that human beings have to behave in this way simply to survive…

It’s a weird look at the state of the frontier with all the warring between Free Staters and Pro Slavers with rifle companies attacking each other. Certainly nothing I learned in my history classes.

It’s an adventurous, if longwinded tale as we spend three years before Harpers Ferry getting to know Brown’s mind and learning Onion’s thoughts.

The Story

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, and Henry is forced to leave town — with Brown, who believes Henry’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry — whom Brown nicknames Little Onion — conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 — one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

The Characters

Henry Shackleford is an ignorant boy, a slave, who aims to please to survive and ends up the Onion. Pa, Gus Shackleford, is another slave who wasn’t long for this world. He was a barber for Dutch Henry‘s Tavern, his supply store, on the Missouri-Kansas border. Bob is the slave driving his master’s wagon who eventually gets enticed along.

John Brown, a.k.a., the Old Man, a.k.a., the Captain, a.k.a., Osawatomie Brown, was a Yankee from upstate New York with a passion for religion and undoing slavery, yet a poor judge of men and timing. Passion enough that he left his eleven children and wife behind him. Of the sons riding with him, Frederick is slow but cottons on to Onion’s true sex right quick, Owen, Salmon, Watson, OliverJason and John, Jr. will head home soon — Henry Thompson is a brother-in-law and his brother Will Thompson.

You be careful around the Browns, for “they didn’t swear, didn’t drink. Didn’t cuss. But God help you if you crossed ’em…”

Other men who ride with Brown until they leave the cause for one reason or another include Theo Weiner the Jew, the Reverend Martin, Ottaway Jones is an Indian, Peabody, and James Townsley. The new men are Kagi, a schoolteacher; the braggart John Cook; Richard Hinton; Realf; Richard Richardson; Taylor; and, Aaron Stevens, who was always spoiling for a fight. More men joined: Charles Tidd, the Coppoc brothers, who were shootin’ Quakers; John Copeland; Leary; Leeman; and, Hazlett. Then O.P. Anderson and Dangerfield Newby joined on. Annie, Brown’s sixteen-year-old daughter, and Martha, Oliver’s sixteen-year-old wife who came with her husband, another Brown son, to do housework and provide camouflage. Emperor joined at the last.

Frederick Douglass was a supporter of Brown’s. Not a very good one. Smart actually. Miss Ottilie is his white German wife while Miss Anna is his colored wife. Seems Mr. Douglass had wandering hands as well. Hugh Forbes was one of Brown’s hopes. Harriet Tubman, a.k.a., the General, was a revelation.

The Pikesville side of the adventure
Chase and Randy take charge of Onion and Bob for a while. Miss Abby runs a whorehouse in Pikesville. Pie is her best hooker. Darg is the threat Miss Abby holds over everyone. Sibonia is the crazy-like-a-fox slave while Libby is her sister; Broadnax, Nate, and Jefferson are fellow outside slaves. Judge Fuggett is a good customer of Pie’s, a fact she should’a remembered.

Harpers Ferry, Virginia
The Coachman is Colonel Washington’s driver; Henry Watson is a barber; the Rail Man, Haywood Shepherd, whose dreams died; and, Becky sells brooms. George and Connie Caldwell help afterwards. Clarence cleans the jailhouse, and Captain Avis was the jailer.

Fontaine Beckham is mayor and a good friend to the coloreds. Mrs. Huffmaster is a pain-in-the-butt neighbor who’d rather gossip and cause trouble than tend her own. Lieutenant Jeb Stuart of the U.S. Cavalry whose commander is Colonel Robert E. Lee.

Free Staters are anti-slavery while the Pro Slavers, well, you can figure it out. Missouri roughriders are hassling and killing.

The Cover
The cover is plain white with a simple yet bloody frame of overlapping bars within which is a narrow column of text that makes me think of an old-time poster not one line of which is the same.

The title is a mascot if you will, The Good Lord Bird that will set you on your way whether for good or ill and help you to understanding.