lukas, November 6, 2014 (view all comments by lukas)
"He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in war. Problem is, God ain't telling nobody who He's for."
James McBride's National Book Award winning novel tells the story of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry from the perspective of a young, freed slave who is mistaken for a girl and spends much of the novel dressed as one. Told from his perspective, it is simultaneously comic and brutal, with echoes of "Huck Finn" and "Little Big Man." McBride masterfully conjures up the violent past while touching on issues (race, identity, fanaticism) that are still with us. Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Jeb Stuart all make appearances. Two other novels about Brown worth checking out: Russell Banks's "Cloudsplitter" and G.M. Fraser's "Flashman and the Angel of Light."
sipost11, October 27, 2014 (view all comments by sipost11)
Read the comments submitted by those before me for the details of why "The Good Old Bird" is such a great book. And then take it from me that you will love Onion's narrating and John Brown's speechifying in this amazing chronicle of all that leads up to John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry. James McBride tells a serious story of slavery and the politics in 1860's America in a way that will make you understand, make you laugh, make you want more. A great book!!
Janna Mauldin Heiner, January 31, 2014 (view all comments by Janna Mauldin Heiner)
From the day John Brown appears in his father's barbershop, Henry Shackleford's life becomes entwined in the passionate, righteous, and slightly insane crusade of one of the most enigmatic figures of American history. Son of a privileged slave, Henry is torn from a life that, in his view, is hardly worth the fuss Brown is making about slavery; and in the fire of Brown's disturbed charisma, becomes party to the abolitionist's efforts to free the Negro from slavery. Henry--mistaken for a girl and given the nickname Onion by Brown--is a perceptive narrator, but young, naïve, and not entirely reliable. Brown comes to vivid life through his eyes, in all his authority, glory, and insanity, his dedication and dereliction. Henry's own confusion and uncertainty adds a layer of meaning to the slave story as well as to this particular one. And in the writing, James McBride offers up a fascinating combination of history and possibility to explain Brown's God-fueled, turbocharged, ultimately doomed attack at Harper's Ferry--and shows clearly the ultimate winning power of his defeat.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
Joel Karpowitz, January 26, 2014 (view all comments by Joel Karpowitz)
Every once in a while you get to read a book that really pushes all your buttons, and The Good Lord Bird was one of those books for me. Growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, I heard again and again (so much so that I started to tune out) about Bleeding Kansas and the border wars with Missouri ruffians over the slavery issue. Of course we focused in Lawrence on Quantrill's burning of the city in 1863, but we also touched on John Brown's time in the state. After all, there in the capitol building in Topeka is that mural of Brown--a raging lunatic with a flowing beard, Bible and gun in hand. He's a terrifying figure, looking equal parts inspiration and insanity.
In The Good Lord Bird, James McBride brings Brown to vivid life, a prophetic madman who is driven by God or folly to try and end slavery by waging a one man war against it, no matter the cost. In McBride's incredibly skilled hands, we see Brown through the eyes of Henry/Henrietta Shackleford, better known as Onion--a slave boy mistaken for (and then disguising himself as) a girl, freed by Brown and accompanying him from his Kansas days and through Harper's Ferry, able to testify to the Old Man's derangement as well as his determination, his psychosis as well as his passion. The novel is funny, rich, and often poignant, and in less skilled hands it could have been to self-serious or too wild, but McBride finds a perfectly Twain-like balance between the two. Onion him/herself isn't quite sure what to make of Brown, and so she sees identifies his deficiencies with a deft eye. But she also respects this man who trusts so fully in his cause and in his God that his faith makes his defeats into victories and his victories into divine will. Onion's adventures sometimes take him/her away from Brown, and buried in the narrative is an equally compelling coming-of-age story of a young black man in the worst of times, when anything you need to do to save your skin--even denying your identity by putting on a dress--seem to make sense. McBride writes with a sense of the hypocrisy surrounding the slavery question, both of the whites and of the African Americans themselves. Frederick Douglass may be taken down a peg or two, even as Harriet Tubman is elevated. In the end, those who do nothing but talk are exposed for the pretense and false virtue, while those who act--in whatever way they know how--are elevated and celebrated.
There are elements of the novel that I'm still working through. I'm not sure, for example, what the opening set up for how Onion's story came to be told really serves any particular purpose, other than to set up the possible unreliability of the narrator (an idea further confirmed by a few of the details that don't quite match up within the narrative), and perhaps a second read through would help me see why having an unreliable narrator might be a boon to this book instead of a detraction. But on the first time through I just loved the journey, the voice, the characters, and the contemplation the book inspired. It's quirky, but it's also one of the best books I've read in a long time--and I like a lot of books.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (3 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)
Matthew Brophy, December 13, 2013 (view all comments by Matthew Brophy)
In a novel that should live for the ages, James McBride has written through real life historical figures a story about an American spirit that came forth from the first generation of rootless people born after the American Revolution, like John Brown. The hero of the story is this terrorist John Brown, himself born after the genesis of these United States in the inheritance of revolution, but with so little reconstruction after the Revolutionary War. Using a narration from a twelve-year old slave freed by John Brown in another historic gun fight between pro-slavers and abolitionists, this fiction conveys through the power of dialogue recorded by a young narrator, the struggle in a new nation when what is perceived to be the Old World inheritance infringes on an “American” culture not yet agreed upon.
There are many layers to the identity struggle of the young twelve-year old narrator who sustains the lost relationship of a father caught in the middle of a gun battle between the man who owned him and John Brown. And so begins a story of freedom and exile, seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Onion carrying the mark of Cain. Onion, over and over, records the struggle in John Brown's crazy prayers, so much a part of the novel. You witness with the narrator the scenes of cowboys shooting up the opposition whenever they disagree with their new neighbors in Kansas-Missouri before traveling west to east, with the people born in the first creation of a nation, not so unlike the scenes found in the Book of Genesis in the days of Noah.
From out of innocence sacrificed, that Good Lord Bird icon conveys over time the spirit that reaches up and grabs the heroes in the story, and roots those wild people of action, like a tree, to the land. From reading about a time when the law of the land is unjust, feel the development of shared belief - if politics and religion are nothing except shared belief which somehow leads to a shared love - in the movement from west back east in order to unite a fragmented nation of the educated and uneducated, the thoughtless and the thoughtful, during a time when nothing ever came easy in regard to “belonging.” Over and over, the narrator Onion -- whose own existence was threatened by just knowing how to read and passing it on -- observes from the perspective of a child how a character is never heard from again. And once you start looking for meaning, as to who really belongs here, the land begin to grip the characters born into independence in their personal battles seen while living at a whorehouse -- of seemingly victimless crimes like drunkenness, lust, greed and unseen bondage -- white people with different measures of freedom finding roots in both their private and in their public lives. And so Onion, in arriving back East, sees the mystery of who is legal or illegal, over who is a slave and who is not, in Part IV in the buildup to Harper's Ferry, with a missing justice, surrounded by the imposition of weapons -- in a kind of baptism by fire -- and you should fear anyone who approaches you if you are Onion. In a story of uprising, there are rootless men living with their restlessness, and the same missing bonds are found at Harper's Ferry among the slaves in Onion's challenge to rouse them. And the last two pages of the book explain, as crazy John Brown attempts to re-create all over again a new nation, exactly how all of this spirit is passed along at Harper's Ferry so close to the heart of the original 13 colonies, in a prelude to the bloodbath of the destruction in civil war soon to delete the evil human law in the genesis of the United States, in the first American Creation. In a story of liberation, when you had for so long lived under a dominant power, when a past is always with you, McBride situates you near the unease so you do not ignore the sounds of discomfort -- hearing prayers so unlike my prayers -- about an incredible suffering, in language about the reality of the world and the silliness of who was better than whom. By the conclusion, McBride who writes lightly to get a serious attention, shows the land to be as much a character as the freed slave or the man John Brown, who the narrator and the reader have inexplicably come to love, from a distance. As Onion comes to find belief in the American spirit hidden in the title.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (3 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)
by Publishers Weekly (starred review),
“Outrageously funny, sad…McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided.”
by The New York Times Book Review,
"A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride...a brilliant romp of a novel....McBride — with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir, The Color of Water, an instant classic — pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page."
"You may know the story of John Brown's unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, but author James McBride's retelling of the events leading up to it is so imaginative, you'll race to the finish."
by The Washington Post,
"A boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel by James McBride....There is something deeply humane in this [story], something akin to the work of Homer or Mark Twain. McBride's Little Onion — a sparkling narrator who is sure to win new life on the silver screen — leads us through history's dark corridors, suggesting that 'truths' may actually lie elsewhere."
by The San Francisco Chronicle,
"Absorbing and darkly funny."
by Booklist (starred review),
"A sizzling historical novel that is an evocative escapade and a provocative pastiche of Larry McMurtry's salty western satires and William Styron's seminal insurrection masterpiece, The Confessions of Nat Turner."
"McBride delivers another tour de force....A fascinating mix of history and mystery."
by The Chicago Tribune,
"A superbly written novel....McBride...transcends history and makes it come alive."
by The Seattle Times,
"An irrepressibly fun read."
"A story that's difficult to put down."
by Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine,
"Both breezy and sharp, a rare combination outside of Twain. You should absolutely read it."
by Minneapolis Star Tribune,
"As in Huck Finn, this novel comes in through the back door of history, telling you something you might not know by putting you in the heat of the action....It is a compelling story and an important one, told in a voice that is fresh and apolitical."
by Columbus Dispatch,
"Exhilarating....McBride makes what could be a confusing tale clear and creates suspense even in a story whose end is well-known. Beneath the humor lies sympathy for Brown and all those whose lives were caught up with his."
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.