The Good Lord Bird
It weren’t slavery that made me want to be free. It was my heart.
If the cover of The Good Lord Bird did not disclose the author to be James McBride, the reader would think that Mark Twain was the genius behind this novel. Winner of the National Book Award (2013), The Good Lord Bird is the story of the years leading up to the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 from the perspective of a young boy named Henry Shackleford, who is known throughout the book as Henrietta when he is mistaken as a girl and decides to play the part to save his hide.
Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.
Nicknamed “The Onion” by the legendary abolitionist John Brown after eating the abolition’s good luck charm – a raw onion – Shakleford is 10 years old in 1856 when he is rescued by Brown after the child’s bible banging father is accidentally killed in a shoot out in a small Kansas town. John Brown and his gang of followers (the Pottawatomie Rifles) hightail it out of town with Shakleford in tow to roam Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa before culminating their wrath upon Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry is often spoken of as the great catalyst for the Civil War. Anti-slavery abolitionists primarily from New York and Ohio attacked a federal armory in hopes of gaining enough ammunition to incite an uprising of the “negroes” in the south. While the raid failed, a heightened focus on slavery, state’s rights, and a national panic all collided and prompted the start of America’s Civil War a year later.
Although the importance of Harper’s Ferry cannot be understated (everyone knows the story and if you don’t, the outcome is revealed on page 2 of the novel), the real story in The Good Lord Bird involves the events leading up to the attack along with the list of characters and the roles they played. John Brown is front and center but Frederick Douglass (with all his egotistical characteristics exposed) and Harriet Tubman (and her selfless efforts) are in the background emerging at times to help support the cause. But, it is Shackleford who steals the show. A scrawny little light-skinned “negro” boy dressed in a potato sack is mistaken to be a little girl and decides its to his advantage to play along in order to survive.
Being a Negro’s a lie anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.
A historical but often hilarious story, The Good Lord Bird was written by a master of words who knew how to make the story believable by making the narrator a child who had seen enough of the world to know it was best to stand back and be somewhat invisible while he figured out how to get himself out of the mess he was in. Just as Mark Twain did in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a strong narrative, a heavy use of humor, and social criticism from a child’s eye, so did McBride in The Good Lord Bird. What makes this book so utterly fantastic is both the language and how the story so completely comes together with no loose ends or runaway plots. It is a perfectly packaged book that gives the reader the real life perspective of those fighting the good fight.
The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong, Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.