Monday, September 30, 2013

A first-person account of John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

The Good Lord Bird
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride, has gotten a lot of buzz this year.  The back of the book actually has a pretty good summary, so here it is:

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1856, 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 him 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.  Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at 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.

I don't want you to read too much into this, but this book took me forever to read.  I am not sure why, because it really grabbed my attention right at the beginning, with the first line:  "I was born a colored man and don't you forget it.  But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years."  The Good Lord Bird takes place over only a few months, so now that I've finished the book, I can't help but wonder what else Little Onion did in his life.  But, gosh, it took me a long time to finish.  Maybe because it's written in dialect and had some long dialogue scenes.  (Has anyone else noticed that most books written now do not have really long scenes of philosophical dialogue, whereas I feel those scenes were very popular in books in the past?)  Or maybe it was because it was so heavy-handed with the foreshadowing that I didn't want to continue on and read what had already been so direly hinted at actually come to pass.  Or maybe it's because the weather has been amazing in September and at this time of year, you want to be outside WHENEVER it is nice because there are only so many more days of this before winter comes and can be depressing.  Who knows?

Even though it took me some time to finish, I still enjoyed the novel.  It's not my favorite of the year, but it was very good.  It's one of those books you wish you liked more because it's so well-written and gives you such a different take on a historical event that people tend to gloss over and talk about in broad strokes.  The Good Lord Bird definitely brought a lot of subtlety and heart to the Harpers Ferry episode; the event came to life for me in a way that it never had before.

The characters were a great mix of cold pragmatism and high idealism, with a healthy dose of mistrust of everyone thrown in.  I loved how no one was portrayed as fully good or fully evil.  Except for Harriet Tubman, who truly was absolutely amazing and had a great cameo here.  The way McBride showed the delicate balance between blacks and white leading up to the Civil War was very powerful.

For example, John Brown has gone through history as someone who fought to free the slaves, but wasn't very effective.  Here, we get a John Brown who believes strongly that he is an instrument of God (the wrath side of God), coming to free the slaves.  But he assumes that all slaves would rather ride with him to free other slaves than do anything else, when most just want to make sure that they and their families end up alive and together at the end of the day.  He has an idealized narrative in his mind and has trouble moving away from that.  The character of Pie, a slave working in a brothel, has her own difficulties to fight through.  She is very well set-up in her current position and when she hears of a possible slave insurrection, she has to decide whether to help or hurt the movement.  She makes a decision but struggles with it and becomes very isolated as a result.  No matter what decision people made about slavery at this time of history, there were consequences to be dealt with, and McBride does his readers a true service in making sure we understand what those were.

And then there's Little Onion, the character who narrates the story for us.  A young boy parading as a young girl (though not very well, for the most part, as it seems most anyone can see through his disguise).  I didn't find him to be the most compelling character in the novel (perhaps another reason why it took me so long to get through this one), though he did grow and mature and think some very profound thoughts as the book neared the end.  Really, I think Onion was just a foil for the larger-than-life character of John Brown.  He gave us perspective on the man that can be hard to get from textbooks and (obviously very biased) contemporary accounts.  I don't know if the John Brown that James McBride gave us was the real John Brown, but he is certainly leaped off the page and into my memory.  And I think now I will always remember Harpers Ferry and what happened there in a different way than I had before - as one that had so much potential to make the slaves the heroes of their own Civil War narrative, rather than just an insurrection led by a crazy white guy and a ragtag group of slaves.  So I am thankful for that.

Note:  I received a complimentary copy of this book to review.


  1. Well now I feel a bit better about not having it because I have heard so much about this I really wanted to read it! :--)

  2. This wasn't one of my favorite reads in the usual sense of I-couldn't-put-it-down-gushing-heaps-of-fangirl-praise sense, but, my goodness, the perspective used by the author and some of the deep things he said/implied at various points make this one of the best historical novels I've read in terms of making a reader actually think about history from a critical view.

  3. I'll have to mention this to my wife as she really likes James MacBride. I like him too, don't get me wrong, but I know she really likes him. :) Plus I won't lie that I tried a book with dialects, similar to this (no, I won't say which one, but let's just say it's a popular one), and I couldn't get through it. I guess I'm too used to reading "The King's English." ;)

  4. I'm half way and need to finish for tomorrow's book club (which should be verrrry innnnnteresting, I hope) - I'm really enjoying the pace and the style. McBride is a great writer, imo.


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