Read This Book: The Good Lord Bird

I had been eyeing James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), winner of the National Book Award, for several weeks at my library.  I heard about it when it came out, and I considered putting it on hold, but I knew I didn’t have time for pleasure reading until after my semester was over.  So I waited.  And then I’d visit my library and see it sitting on the shelf, just sitting there in the “new books” case waiting for somebody to read it.  Nobody checked it out.  There was no waiting list.  So when my freedom from school and research came, I snatched it up, both happy that I could access it so easily and disappointed that nobody else in my community wanted to read it.

good lord bird cover

Although they may not be interested in it, I know several people who would be.  Mark Twain, for example.  He would’ve loved this book.  One of my favorite professors, Dr. B, would love it too.  I can hear him laughing his way through it.  I also thought of my friend Josh, author of The World’s Strongest Librarian.  He would like this one.  And then, what do you know, Josh posted in his newsletter about it and told everybody to read this awesome book.

It is a fantastic book.  It is about John Brown from the perspective of young slave boy Henry, nicknamed Onion, who is mistaken for a girl when Brown “rescues” him from slavery.  The narrative is framed, with the story that some old papers have been found with an account from the only surviving member of Brown’s associates.  This turns out to be Henry’s story, and he narrates for us his life and adventures as part of Brown’s army leading up to Harper’s Ferry.  The narrative is funny and witty and addresses both sides of the slavery question at the time.  It isn’t meant to be indoctrinating or to view abolitionists with rose-colored glasses.  Instead, McBride writes with a balanced hand, recognizing the nuanced and complex situation of that time from both white and black perspectives.

Many great historical characters make entrances in the novel, and not in completely flattering ways.  Henry has an interesting run-in with Frederick Douglass, whom I have always admired and revered.  But apparently he wasn’t perfect.  Harriet Tubman is also present, along with other Underground Railroad figures.  Henry meets the people, all while dressed as a girl, and the adventure of his life is a fascinating good time for readers.

Yet in the end, Henry finds out that his years dressing as a girl, because Brown mistook him for one in the beginning, aren’t a secret.  Brown knew that Henry was a boy, and before his death, when Henry asks about it, Brown says, with a smile that is described as the face of God, “Whatever you is, Onion, . . . be it full.  God is no respecter of persons.  I loves you, Onion” (p. 415).  Wow.  I loved this part, because it informs a lot of what I believe about God and his love.  My experiences have taught me the same thing.  God loves everybody.

John Brown, public domain image
John Brown, public domain image

Much scripture and praying informs the novel, despite its comedy, because of Brown’s religious conviction.  He works to free slaves because of his belief that it is wrong and that God is on his side.  He is depicted as a man of great faith, able to pray sincerely for hours.  Through Henry’s eyes, we get an insider’s view of this great man and the events leading up to Harper’s Ferry.

Run, don’t walk, to read this book.

46 thoughts on “Read This Book: The Good Lord Bird

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  1. I haven’t heard about this book before, but now I’m certainly going to put it on my to read list. It sounds really interesting, and I don’t think I’ve read books about slavery/abolitionism before. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Oh wow, I had no idea this was historical fiction – about John Brown. Now I’m going to have to read it. Thanks, it sounds like a great read – compelling personal story entwined with real historical people and events of great impact.
    And yes, be you fully – that’s what we’re designed for, not to be a bland copy of others!

  3. Thanks for reviewing this. I was also curious about it. It’s true that it’s not getting the attention that a lot of other books have gotten this year…I’m glad you enjoyed it and are highly recommending it. I will put this on my to-read list.

    1. Please do. I wish it were getting more attention, but usually those books that get the “right” kind of attention suffer at the more popular level. That’s how you know it’s good, right? 🙂

  4. Thank you for the review, the book sounds interesting,and I will be putting it on my “requests” list. After publishing my Mom’s memoirs “Always Going” I am more intrigued with other peoples lives throughout history!

  5. I hadn’t heard of this book, or John Brown, (I haven’t studied much American history) so I would never have picked it up usually, but it sounds fascinating. I love using historical fiction as a entry into learning about a time period, or person, as it really helps create a sense of place in my mind. I’m looking forward to finding this book now.

  6. I’m dying to read this one — before the summer, I hope. My sabbatical novel touches lightly upon John Brown so I’ve been researching him (wow, crazytimes, is all I can say!) but I adore the sound of this book. Your enthusiasm has me even more excited!

  7. Emily, thanks for sharing this. I had not come across it and look forward to doing so. I like when we look at people, even great ones, and see that they were not perfect either. Yet, they still accomplished great things and did more right than wrong. Take care, BTG

    1. I guess they are human beings just like the rest of us, but it is so easy to lionize them. I like that you focus on the positive because that is what matters, for all of us. Thanks for the comment!

      1. It is always a pleasure to visit. You are right. JFK and Bill Clinton were philanderers, yet they did great things for the country. I love Teddy Roosevelt, but he had an outsized ego. Even Nelson Mandela had a more aggressive bent as a young adult and he ended up as one of the greatest leaders who has walked the planet.

    1. It’s pretty darn good. I hope it is your kind of book. I always hesitate to be too promotional because we all like different types of books, but this one deserved it!

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