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.
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.
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.