Now a Showtime limited series starring Ethan Hawke and Daveed Diggs
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
From the bestselling author of Deacon King Kong (an Oprah Book Club pick) and The Color of Water comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.
Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1856--a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces--when legendary abolitionist John Brown arrives. When an argument between Brown and Henry's master turns violent, Henry is forced to leave town--along with Brown, who believes Henry to be a girl and his good luck charm.
Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity to stay alive. Eventually Brown sweeps him into the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859--one of the great catalysts for the Civil War. An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride's meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
A slavery-era comedy sounds like a risky proposal, but James McBride pulls it off with style in The Good Lord Bird. Old John Brown, a historical figure who is hilariously fictionalized by McBride, is a zealous, Bible-quoting white abolitionist in the Kansas Territory. With his flea-bitten band of armed outlaws, Brown roams the prairies trying to free slaves who don’t necessarily feel like being freed by him. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments on almost every page, but between the laughs, The Good Lord Bird brings up real questions about race, history, and American-ness.
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 na ve 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, 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.
Rooting for Old John Brown
So much hope for humanity wrapped up in this lovely story. Written in such a way that it’s impossible not to root for Old John Brown, even though history tells of his ending. Loved how Onion felt like a coward but was, indeed, a hero.
This book was fascinating! The beginning was a bit slow but as the story developed it got more and more interesting. The social commentary on race, gender, and religion is quite relevant today. It also highlights the white male privilege and the complexities of ally ship.