National Book Award, Fiction, 2013
From the best-selling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung 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 1857, 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 Brown 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.
©2013 James McBride (P)2013 Penguin Audiobooks
I love literary fiction and I occasionally delve into non-fiction. I love books that are suspenseful and am really into well-told stories.
This is a quaint historical novel about the abolitionist John Brown, who's deeds and follies set the stage for the American Civil War. At first, I had a hard time listening to the chortling of "The Onion" a 10 to 12 year-old boy who was put into a dress and apparently lived as a woman for 17 years. After a couple of hours, I got into the voice...and the book is quite hysterical in some areas. I had to look it up to see if John Roberts was a real person or not, just because his escapades seemed so unrealistic. But, John Roberts did live, although I doubt the boy/girl nicknamed "The Onion" is a real person. But Onion is the perfect vehicle for telling this story. He is a child whom everyone treats as a girl, and for that reason, he could get into places and do things that a boy could not have been able to.
I enjoyed this book because it was funny and the voice actor was really quite good...after I got used to the sound of his voice. Audible makes a mistake when reading the introduction, because you think it is going to sound like that the whole way though. They have done that with other books that I did not appreciate.
Through the eyes of The Onion (so nicknamed because John Roberts hands the kid this rotten/petrified onion he kept as a good luck charm, but The Onion doesn't understand why he has been given this hideous rotten piece of crap masquerading as an onion, so he eats it. Then John Roberts always protects him, proclaiming that "She's my lucky charm" (I guess because s/he ate the onion instead of putting it in his/her pocket).
There are lots of funny scenes where the kid's true identity is almost unmasked, but while reading the bible on evening on a porch in Virginia, the boy realizes that a body, male or female, black or white is simply a shell and who one is inside and the outer shell doesn't make a bit of difference. I was touched by that, and it is true, IMO.
I don't like to reveal much of a book's plot points or the way it ends....but I found it very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who likes a farcical historical novel. I read about it on the NPR's website and went straight to Audible and bought it and I'm glad I did. It is witty, not too gory and I quite enjoyed it. It's a bit like Tom Robbins meets Edward P. Jones to write about a part of American Slavery and one man's feverish desire (driven by the Lord!) to bring an end to slavery. Oh...and we get to meet Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman in a way that we have never met them before.
All and all, a very enjoyable read. I can see it as a movie...maybe directed by the Cohen Brothers....who would be perfect for the tone of the book.
McBride's depiction of John Brown is fascinating. His greatest trait is his blind faith. But his blind faith is also his undoing. Believing that he's getting messages directly from God deafens him to the advice of his companions. You know the story is going to end badly for him. So listening to it you're begging him to listen, just once, to the advice that will make his plan succeed. That's the backbone of the novel. John Brown is surrounded by people with weaker convictions than him, who end up following him, for all the right reasons, to their own doom. He's a really tragic hero, who fails at his plan, but ends up making a difference through martyrdom.
If I were a history teacher, I'd use this book to make my students care about the boring stuff that led up to the Civil War. I'm not a fan of the Civil War, despite plenty of great movies and books on the subject. Let's face it. It's a national embarrassment. Too much Civil War is like having a loaded diaper shoved in your face. And yet, I found myself staying up late doing research about what set the stage for the Civil War because of this book: Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, Mexican-American War, Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas... the battle for balance between slave states and free states for their respective votes in Washington D.C. None of these are mentioned in the novel, but I found myself spending hours reading up on them. And following the timeline of the novel: homesteading and the politics of granting land to encourage westward immigration from the big cities where unemployment was causing it's own difficulties. After John Brown failed, the south mustered up militias to prevent slave rebellions, which in turn gave them a military advantage that the north took years to catch up to. There are a great many interesting social dynamics alluded to by this telling of the botched raid on Harper's Ferry. Suddenly I care about a part of US history that never held my interest. James McBride finds sympathy and flaws in all these different characters at odds with one another. Everyone has warts, but you come to understand their humanity. You start to understand the way people thought at a different time and yearn for them to see the light. It's really engaging. And the gem of it all is the trick of telling it through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who is just trying to save his own skin. This character's commentary on the more important historical stuff clashing with his self-preservation is hilarious.
I was eager to read James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird. John Brown spent a portion of his life where I grew up and am very familiar with him.
Frankly, I am not sure if I enjoyed the book or not. I did struggle to finish this book. The main force to complete this had more to do with commitment and less to do with anticipation in the ending and enjoyment of the text. Yeah, parts of it are humorous but much of it is “bathroom” humor and “dirty old man” humor. I certainly didn’t find it witty or clever.
First, if enjoying this through Audible, Michael Boatman’s narration is odd to say the least. Overacted would best describe his reading. I found it hard to listen to and uncomfortable. It’s like when at a community theatrical production where there is that one guy that camps all his lines and monkey shines for the audience, putting everyone ill at ease. I felt that ill at ease feeling for the first third of the book till Boatman seemed to finally tired of doing it.
Told in first person, Henry, the protagonist, is a slave boy that possesses feminine qualities that allow him the luxury of assuming the alias of a female, Henrietta, when abolitionist John Brown mistakes his gender while in Kansas. John Brown considers him/her as a good luck charm and their lives intertwine through the next 17 years. Though this is fictional history I felt that large portions were fiction than was really necessary.
A brilliant imagining of a major historical figure. The writing, and inventiveness, and the story telling are nearly beyond compare.
I wouldn't know, but I liked the narrator for the audio edition.
Onion is the best character. Next best is Old John Brown. All in all I loved every character in the book.
Excitement of the journey. He opens up the comedy of the story. I was actually depressed when I started reading it, and I found myself laughing out loud at the stuff Onion and the Old Man got themselves into.
John Brown, then Onion the unwilling transgender character.
Good story and funny, funny and funny!
with reservations. I like historical fiction. In this book, I think the author went beyond the point of credibility. I think the author got caught up in trying to cover too many themes.
narrator was fine
no. The story is over.
I am not sure after reading this book what was real and what was created for the story.
Like some other reviewers, I was exhausted by the narrator's loud, overacted voice. I had been looking forward to this book, as I thoroughly enjoyed McBride's memoir, The Color of Water. But this book is too long for a pretty shallow plot. I know that I will avoid books narrated by Michael Boatman in future.
The production quality and narrator for this book were so good that they kept me going even when the book itself drove me nuts.
Apparently, this book has been controversial because of the author's use of dialect imagined to be of the day. I found this to be one of the stronger, more inventive aspects of the book - the language is vivid and colorful, and did not find it racist as it applied to all characters, black and white.
The book uses realism to defend its use of dialect in the narrative; however, the shallow, feckless treatment of slavery and prostitution is so white-washed that it becomes offensive. The book also stretches credulity many times: e.g., a drunk, 13-year old slave girl living in a whorehouse is never subjected to rough treatment by the white, frontiersmen customers (there are many situations like this - including a ridiculous encounter with Frederick Douglas.) The only way the teenaged narrator's perspective on is believable is if we were white readers in 1936 and we Prissy from Gone with the Wind had written a book.
The book is also tiresomely repetitive in several spots - plot lines being repeated and repeated to make sure the reader gets it, some of the same expressions over-used until they become hackneyed; the book needed a tougher editor.
The pity of it for me is that John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry and its place in the civil war is a subject of personal interest, but this book does little to illuminate potential aspects of Brown's character and trivializes the impact of his followers, including the African-Americans who followed him.
The end of the book (after the raid), has some dignity denied throughout the rest of the book, and does try to do something redeemable with the central analogy around the now-extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, but it's too little, too late.
Most of the book is like watching Al Jolson, in blackface, sing "Mammy." An offensive and very outdated stereotype.
I'm an Audible fan generally, but found Michael Boatman's reading of this to be especially compelling. A fun story about a young slave who witnesses the zany John Brown in his exploits and misadventures.
Top rung. I always enjoy Michael Boatman's performances. His voice is both entertaining and really captures the time, locales, dialects. I really liked his John Brown voice. I selected this book because I had heard about it since it won the National Book Award. Michael Boatman was a pleasant surprise.
So many lines, like "no more than a hog know'd a holiday" reminded me of characters I have known, expressions that are both dated and down home, depending on where home is.
His voice of the John Brown character was over the top, which is apropos for a character as extreme and passionate in his religious fervor as the "Old Man" Brown.
The Onion. He's a slave child who says he lived a comfortable life until an encounter with John Brown got his father killed and him captured by Brown who was hell bent on freeing the slaves. On the road with Brown, he meets Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Jeb Stuart before surviving the raid at Harpers Ferry. The Onion is too flawed to be a hero and too savvy to be a victim. He's an undeserving coward who disrespects people and God, but whose brave spiritual awakening is the only point of the whole adventure. And yes, he dressed like a girl for several years just to save his "arse", and he had everyone mostly fooled.
Surely the details of the protagonist's experiences seem over the top and too fictionalized for a historical novel. Instead, regard this as an entertaining yarn with a historical foundation rather than an historical novel with a haughty air of authenticity. If you want your history uncut, go with Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want to have fun with the brutal John Brown Raid, the unspeakable degradation of American slavery and the run-up to the bloody US Civil War, "The Good Lord Bird" is a good choice. Thanks, James McBride and Michael Boatman!
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