Summary: A slave is ‘rescued’ by John Brown in Kansas and tells his story through the Harper’s Ferry raid.
John Brown is rightly a controversial figure in American history. I read a short (children’s?) book last October. And Brown was a figure in the biographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman that I also read in 2018.
On the positive side, John Brown radically believed that slavery was something that was so evil in God’s eyes that it was morally justified to take up arms to attempt to end slavery. On the negative side, John Brown was so convinced of his calling by God and God’s blessing on that calling that he either failed to plan well or was just incapable of planning well. From the blatant murder of pro-slave individuals in Kansas to the failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, where the first people to die were free Black residents of the area, Brown’s actions failed to meet his intentions.
James McBride uses the character of Henry Shackleford, a young pre-teen slave to tell the story. John Brown attempts to free several slaves in a tavern in Kansas, which results in the death of Henry’s father. Brown mistakes Henry as a girl and for the rest of the novel, Henry plays the part of a girl, nicknamed ‘Little Onion’.
There is lots of humor in the book, but also clear social commentary both for today and of the pre-civil war era. Even among abolitionists, Blacks, slave or free, were barely human in the eyes of most Whites. Onion (Henry) plays the part of a girl, because the role of Blacks at the time (and in many ways today) was to be put on a performance for Whites that kept the individual (or group) safe first. The authentic self was less important than the safety.
Onion’s play acting as a girl is played for laughs frequently, but the point isn’t just laughs, the point is the dehumanization that is part of what it means to be Black in a society that is designed for White Supremacy.
McBride is definitely playing with the historical characters. Brown is portrayed as both a bit crazy, but also a real person that really does want to free slaves. Frederick Douglass is portrayed as a cowardly lech, who does introduce Brown to people that will help fund Brown’s work, but who doesn’t want to actually do any hogtying himself. Harriet Tubman is the most positive portrayal in the book, but she is also barely in the book.
For the most part, Whites are clueless. No White characters really understand that Onion is a boy. Most Black males also assume that Onion is a boy unless Onion reveals himself (Frederick Douglass attempts to seduce him). But Black women always know.
The Good Lord Bird is third book by McBride that I have read in about a year and the best of the three. McBride is an engaging writer. All three books I think have had problems, but the problem is not interesting writing. The Good Lord Bird won a National Book Award in 2013. While I think it is worth reading and I do not regret reading it and I want to keep reading McBride, it still feels flawed. I cannot quite put my finger on what is wrong here, the biography of musician James Brown felt rushed and lacking polish. Song Yet Sung felt meandering. Those are not the problems in The Good Lord Bird, but maybe it is just a frustration with the actual historical characters more than the book.