The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

ivory-billed-woodpecker

My book club read McBride’s The Color of Water a few years back, and since we all enjoyed it we decided to try his fiction this time around. Also the movie will be coming out, and as all readers know you gotta read the book before the movie ruins it.

The Good Lord Bird of the title refers to the ivory-billed woodpecker, which starts as a symbol to one of the characters and becomes a sort of metaphor for John Brown’s abolitionist movement by the end. Our story begins when John Brown visits the town in Kansas where our protagonist, Henry, lives with his father, a slave who works mostly as a barber. In an altercation with Henry’s master, John Brown accidentally shoots the innocent barber, and in the confusion that follows, takes Henry along with him to “free” him. There are a few complications: John Brown is convinced that Henry is a girl (because he is wearing a genderless flour sack common for slave children of the time, and is small for his age), and Henry is not particularly keen to be freed. As he tells us over and over throughout the book, Henry is not concerned with much beyond his own comfort and his next meal,  but he goes along with John Brown because it seems like less work than his previous life, and he knows he will be punished as a runaway without Brown’s protection. He tries at first (rather feebly) to inform Brown that he’s a boy, but comes to realize that he is probably safest as a girl and so proceeds to wear dresses and try not to get caught.

Christened “The Onion” by John Brown early on, “Henrietta” becomes a sort of mascot to Brown and his ragged army (which consists mostly of his own sons). Through Onion’s eyes, we see the whole story of John Brown’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to begin an insurrection – from his years of stirring up the Free Staters in Kansas to his eventual disastrous attack on Harper’s Ferry.

The good and the bad thing about this book is that it is narrated by a young boy who isn’t very educated and doesn’t see the big political picture. It took me a long time to warm up to the Onion – by his own admission he’s not very brave, and it’s hard to respect him – but once I stopped to consider his position it was easier to understand his inability to act for himself. In those days, a slave (or a child, or a woman) just didn’t act for him or herself, and needed to toe the line just to survive. The rules changed according to the white man’s whim, and Onion can hardly be blamed for keeping his head down.

Some of the best parts of this book were the portraits of famous abolitionists. John Brown knows Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and just about everyone who was anyone in the movement, and through the Onion, we get to meet them all. (I had to look up Frederick Douglass just to be sure the author wasn’t pulling one over on me, but Douglass really was married to both a black and a white woman – just not at the same time as McBride suggests.)

All in all, it’s a good book. Just take the historical parts with a grain of salt, since this historical fiction is pretty heavy on the fiction side (example: the Douglass bigamy). But what it lacks in factual accuracy it more than makes up for by evoking the spirit of those times and letting us see through the Onion’s eyes how even though John Brown didn’t actually accomplish a lot while he lived, what he did accomplish took on a life of its own after his death and helped to move the entire country toward the Civil War.

I read parts of this and listened to parts. The audiobook reader is excellent and really brings the dialogue to life. (His overblown preachery John Brown voice is hilarious.)

I’m having a hard time coming up with readalikes for this one so I’m giving up so I can post this. If you know any, comment.

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