The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The rampaging, rollicking mission of slave abolitionist John Brown and the world of the slave on the verge of the American Civil War told through the eyes of a young lad is proving to be a marmite of a novel. Occasionally it feels as if less could be more, but well worth picking up.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Riverhead
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1594486340

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Henry 'The Onion' Shackleford lives as Henrietta (or just plain Onion) until he's 17 due to a misunderstanding that may prove too dangerous for him to correct. The reason is that the person under this misapprehension is the fiercely well-meaning slavery abolitionist (with the emphasis on the 'fiercely') John Brown. As Onion accompanies him on his quest to free every slave they encounter, he discovers that Brown's philanthropy only stretches so far. Meanwhile it's that time of the 19th century when a shadow spreads over America, one that will cause a historic scar almost as great as that of slavery but Brown is oblivious to this. He doesn't want to start a civil war, just an armed slave revolt.

Writer and musician James McBride is a literary treasure in his native USA. However, even there, opinion is divided over this, his fourth novel and ironically the recipient of the 2013 National Book Prize for Fiction. Although praise from the grass roots fans for his past work such as his memoir, The Color of Water is widespread, The Good Lord Bird seems to be marmite-esque. So this is where I come in with my completely open mind, not having read any of James' previous books and knowing nothing about John Brown except that his body now lies mouldering in the grave.

I like Onion immensely; it's difficult not to. As he tells his story in the first person through episodic flashbacks, we get to know the young lad quickly and admire him for being so principled in a country that, at the time, appears as unscrupulous and treacherous as wild.

Even the good Captain Brown himself seems to season the worthy ideal of slave emancipation and eradication with his own self-interest. Yes, he liberates them but he forbids them from escaping to the north, ruling out their chances of escaping to safety. Instead the 'freed' slaves experience a different kind of captivity, pressed into service with him and fighting under his orders. This plan leads the confrontation at Harpers Ferry, familiar to most American school children and a fascinating piece of history but don't look it up till you've read the book for fear of spoilers.

The vignettes mix the gritty (adult themed), rollicking and brutal with the charming and, sometimes, funny giving the air of a cleverly wry Coen Brothers film. One moment we're witnessing a pitched battle or ambush with accompanying gore and next we're smiling (or giggling in my case) at poor Onion's attempt to retain his womanly disguise in a brothel. Also (as having a husband in the trade) I love how Onion's itinerate, illiterate, preacher father invents books of the Bible to sound authoritative. If only that would catch on!

As a mulatto Onion is able to escape many indignities and atrocities suffered by those with darker skin pigmentation but he's still around to regale us with telling customs like people being left in 'slave pens' outside while their 'betters' enjoy a town's entertainment.

If I have a grumble it's that after a while the novel starts to feel a little over-written and strung out. I found my reading speed flagging in places and felt that it could probably be 100 or so pages shorter. However James isn't averse to throwing in surprises every now and again which urged me on with renewed enthusiasm so that abandoning Onion and his ever changing band of acquaintances was never a consideration. If I wasn't reading to a deadline I would probably have dipped in and out more sporadically but it's a fascinating look at an era we don't hear much of here in the UK so definitely worth a read.

We'd like to thank Riverhead for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more about the life of an American slave as well as those who fought for their freedom, go no further than The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd and The Purchase by Linda Spalding. You might also enjoy The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth.

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Buy The Good Lord Bird by James McBride at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Good Lord Bird by James McBride at


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