The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: A review

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, now likely extinct, was the largest woodpecker endemic to North America. Twenty inches long with a wingspan of thirty inches, it was an impressive sight in flight, so impressive that folks who saw it were known to exclaim in awe, "Good lord!" And so, the story goes, it became known colloquially as the Good Lord Bird.

The Good Lord Bird was a denizen of the forests and swamps of the southeastern United States. It's unlikely that it ever lived on the prairies of Kansas except in James McBride's imagination.

McBride imagines the bird there in the middle of the nineteenth century, sharing "Bleeding Kansas" with the abolitionist John Brown and his "army." In his telling, the woodpecker became a talisman for the abolitionist. He carried its feathers as a good luck charm, a symbol of hope.

Like many, I suppose, I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of John Brown and his campaign to destroy the institution of slavery. I am aware of the broad outlines of the story but never troubled myself too much with the specifics. In this book, James McBride introduces the man himself to people like me and makes him a real person not just someone who exists on the dusty pages of history books. He does it by showing us John Brown through the eyes of a young boy, a Black child who first met him there in Kansas and rode with him for the next four years until his 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a raid that likely hastened the beginning of the bloody Civil War that would finally put an end to slavery in this country.

The boy, our narrator, is Henry Shackleford. He met John Brown one day when the man came to town for a haircut. Henry's father was a barber and while he worked at the head of his customers, Henry worked at their feet, cleaning their boots. On the fateful day of their meeting, a ruckus arose as it often did in the presence of John Brown. In the ensuing melee, Henry's father was accidentally killed, leaving the child an orphan. Brown took him with him when he left, telling Henry that he was now free. 

Because of the way Henry was dressed when he met him, Brown thought that he was a she, a young girl named Henrietta, and Henry/Henrietta dressed and passed as a girl during all the years he was with Brown.  He became a favorite of Brown and particularly of Brown's son Frederick who introduced him to the Good Lord Bird and gave him a feather from the bird to wear in his hat.

Henry/Henrietta, who Brown soon dubs Onion, is a rollicking good narrator. His storytelling reminded me of no one so much as Huckleberry Finn. In fact, I think Henry and Huck would have been fast friends.

Brown led his ragtag army around Kansas and Missouri, with the pro-slavers always hot on his trail. There were many skirmishes along the way, with Brown always convinced that the Great Redeemer was on his side. As Henry observes:
“He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.”
Henry travels with Brown to Boston and Philadelphia and along the way, he meets Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and sees free Black people walking the streets dressed in fine clothes. It is a revelation to him.
“I come to the understanding that maybe what was on the inside was more important, and that your outer covering didn't count so much as folks thought it did, colored or white, man or woman.”
But by this time the Onion had pretended to be a girl for so long that he was attached to the idea.
“I had thoroughly been a girl so long by then that I'd grown to like it, got used to it, got used to not having to lift things, and have folks make excuses for me on account of me not being strong enough, or fast enough, or powerful enough like a boy, on account of my size. But that's the thing. You can play one part in life, but you can't be that thing. You just playing it. You're not real.” 
But Onion rationalizes that lying about who he was didn't really matter because to white people: 
“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.” 
And so the road inexorably leads to Harpers Ferry and the Brown army's date with history. They ensure that Henry/Onion escapes out a window before the final battle begins and he is aided and hidden by conductors on the Underground Railroad, but once Brown is captured and tried and sentenced to hang, Henry longs to visit him to say goodbye and to confess. A janitor at the jail where he is held makes the visit possible. As Onion confesses his deceptions, a strange transformation comes over Brown.
“The old face, crinkled and dented with canals running every which way, pushed and shoved up against itself for a while, till a big old smile busted out from beneath 'em all, and his grey eyes fairly glowed. It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren't no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside him. I saw it clear for the first time. I knowed then, too, that he knowed what I was - from the very first.” 
Brown admonishes Henry, “Whatever you is, Onion," he said, "be it full.” 

By the time Henry nears the end of his narrative, I have completely fallen for John Brown. Maybe he was a wild and crazy old man but in spite of all his warts and foibles, he was a hero for his times, a larger than life warrior for justice. We need all of those we can get wherever we can find them.

As Henry summed up his understanding of John Brown, after all the satire and humor of his narrative, I was reduced to tears.
“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 the thing gets tired and it falls down. And the dirt from it raises other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes 'em strong. Gives 'em life. And the circle goes 'round.”
Even in death, John Brown gave life to the movement he espoused and though the struggle for justice goes on, the "dirt" from all those mighty trees that have fallen continues to nourish and make us stronger. And so the circle goes round. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. The author and book were both new to me. Thanks for the review.

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    1. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when it came out a few years ago. His next book, Deacon King Kong which I read earlier this year, won the prize this year. McBride is a very good writer.

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  2. A few years ago I read Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton which was a biography of Brown. He was a fascinating man in many ways. He was willing to aggressively use violence to stop evil. I remember reading that many black folk who knew him felt that he was the only white person who treated black people like full human adults and that was true even among white abolitionists. He was truly colorblind at a time when no other whites were.

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    1. That is McBride's take on him as well; he saw people as they truly were, not as they appeared on the outside.

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  3. I have always known it to be called "The Lord God Bird" as in "Lord God, look at that bird!" In fact, I have a book by Phillip Hoose called "The Race to Save The Lord God Bird." It is generally accepted to be extinct, certainly in the United States, and probably on Cuba too. I have held two skins in my hand. It was an impressive bird indeed.

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    1. Well, Good Lord Bird probably makes for a better title and a better story!

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  4. Another excellent review, Dorothy. You have sent some good titles my way, and this one seems to be a must read. Thank you. P. x

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    1. I think you will enjoy it, Pam. McBride is really a terrific storyteller.

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  5. I didn't realize this novel was about John Brown ... who is quite fascinating in history and written about lots. That Tubman book I recently read talks about her support & meeting with Brown. I will eventually get to McBride's novel, sounds creative too. thanks.

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    1. When I read his latest book earlier this year, it served to remind me that I had never actually read this one. I'm so glad I finally did!

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  6. I too found this book to be great! Next I am going to read his latest: Deacon King Kong.

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    1. This may well be my favorite book that I've read this year so far. I fearlessly predict that you will like Deacon King Kong, too!

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  7. Bravo!! Excellent review!! I will have to read The Good Lord Bird by James McBride now.

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    1. It is an excellent book, highly deserving of the Pulitzer that it won.

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  8. Replies
    1. I thought they did a good job of adapting the book for television.

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