The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

16171272Good Lord Bird – An Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, critically endangered and possibly extinct.

They say a feather from a Good Lord Bird’ll bring you understanding that’ll last your whole life.

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 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.

This is the second book by James McBride that I have read.  Several years ago I read Miracle at St. Anna, and I loved it.  Miracle at St. Anna is inspired by an historical event that takes place in an Italian village during WWII.  The Good Lord Bird is inspired by an historical figure who crusaded for the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.  Both are important and somber events, so I was not expecting The Good Lord Bird to be such a fun and entertaining tale.

The best thing about this book are the wonderful characters, namely Henry/Henrietta/Onion, who is the voice of the story, and John Brown/the Old Man, the famous abolitionist who rode around with his ragtag army fighting against the “infernal institution”.

At the age of 10, Henry is freed/taken by Brown and his men after a scuffle at the tavern where Henry worked, resulting in his Pa being killed.  Brown thought he was a girl, dressed him accordingly, called him Onion, and told him he was free.  Henry occupies his thoughts with plans of escape and complaints about lack of food and his itchy dress.

That’s the thing about working under Old John Brown, and if I’m tellin’ a lie I hope I drop down a corpse after I tell it: I was starving fooling with him.  I was never hungry when I was a slave.  Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels.

Henry’s many descriptions of the Old Man and his ways are priceless.

He was a plain terror in the praying department.  Just when he seemed to wrap up one thought, another came tumbling out and crashed up against the first, and then another crashed up against that one, and after a while they all bumped and crashed and commingled against one another till you didn’t know who was who and why he was praying it, for the whole thing come together like tornadoes that whipped across the plains, gathering up the sagebrush and boll weevils and homesteads and tossing them about like dust.  The effort of it drawed his sweat, which poured down his leathery neck and runned down his shirt, while he spouted about burnt offerings and blood from the lamp stand of Jesus and so forth; all the while that dress of mine itched to high heaven and the mosquitoes gnawed at my guts, eating me alive.

His face, always aged, looked even older.  It looked absolutely spongy with wrinkles.  His beard was now fully white and ragged, and so long it growed down to his chest and could’a doubled for a hawk’s nest.  He had gotten a new set of clothes someplace, but they were only worse new versions of the same thing he wore before: black trousers, black vest, frock coat, stiff collar, withered, crumpled, and chewed at the edges.  His boots was worse than ever, crumpled like pieces of text paper, curled at the toes.  In other words, he looked normal, like his clothes was dying of thirst, and he himself was about to keel over out of plain ugliness.

I could go on and on, but I have to leave you a few to discover on your own.

Henry ended up staying with the Old Man for the Battle of Black Jack, the Battle of Osawatomie, and finally the raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry that ended in John Brown’s capture.  He also accompanied John Brown to Rochester, NY where he met Frederick Douglass, on a three month tour of New England to “speechify” and raise funds for the effort, and to Chatham, Ontario where he met Harriet Tubman.

They called for them rebels’ heads, announced they’d trounce ’em, bounce ’em, kill ’em, deaden ’em where they stood.  Some of the women broke into tears once the Old Man spoke.  It made me a bit sad, truth be to tell it, to watch them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren’t hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse.  It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west, to my mind.  It was like a big, long lynching.  Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.

Harriet Tubman’s words to Henry:

“You done good to speak out,” she said.  “To make some of these fellers stand up as men.  But the wind of change got to blow in your heart, too,” she said softly.  “A body can be whatever they want to be in this world.  It ain’t no business of mine.  Slavery done made a fool out of a lot of folks.  Twisted ’em all different kinds of ways.  I seen it happen many a time in my day.  I expect it’ll happen in all our tomorrows, too, for when you slave a person, you slave the one in front and the one behind.

The voice of Henry/Onion is funny and engaging, and he pokes fun at John Brown and the way he runs his army and lives his life, but ultimately, the relationship we witness between them is touching and unforgettable.  By the end of their adventures together, Henry is forced to go his own way, and he is ready.  John Brown has provided him with love, care, courage, and a sense of identity.  Whether Henry thinks so or not.

The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn’t no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn’t speak their language.  He was a Bible man.  A God man.  Crazy as a bedbug.  Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker.  But at least he knowed he was crazy.  At least he knowed who he was.  That’s more than I could say for myself.

If you like historical fiction, and/or learning more about the Civil War and the events surrounding the Civil War, you would like this book.  If you’re tired of reading heavy, gloomy books about the Civil War, then this is the book for you.  I think it was the most comedic book I have ever read about any war.

A quote from Frederick Douglass about John Brown from Wikipedia:

After the Civil War, Black leader Frederick Douglass wrote, “His zeal in the cause of my race  was far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity.  I could live for the slave, but he could die for them.”

Other good books I’ve read about the Civil War are March by Geraldine Brooks and The March by E.L. Doctorow.   Do you have others to recommend?

11 thoughts on “The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

  1. Shannon @ River City Reading says:

    I’ve been trying to get through the novels for The Tournament of Books and this is one I’m so sad I haven’t gotten to yet, especially after seeing all the great excerpts here. I have a feeling I would totally fall in love.

    It’s non-fiction, but have you read Confederates in the Attic? It’s a journalists account of going through the US trying to figure out why so many Americans still feel so attached to the Civil War/try to re-live so many aspects of it. It’s really fascinating/frustrating and totally recommended.

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read Confederates in the Attic, but it does sound fascinating. I will have to check it out – thanks! And I hope you will eventually get around to reading this book. It’s hard to read them all, though!

  2. Cecilia says:

    I’ve been curious about this book. Thanks for your review. I’m intrigued by the idea of the book being a bit humorous! I do know what you mean…I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena last year, a grim novel about Chechnya, but there were many parts that were actually funny. It’s almost hard to explain how that can be.

    I’ve read Gone with the Wind and I do recommend it!

    • Naomi says:

      I forgot about Gone With the Wind, I read it so long ago. You’re right, it was a good one too!

      I really liked the story in The Good Lord Bird being told by Henry/Henrietta/Onion. He was such a character!

  3. Rory says:

    This made my favorite books of last year, I really enjoyed it and I hope it does well in the Tournament of Books. I think I was most surprised by how sincerely funny the book is.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    This is one that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon without the Tournament of Books to take me in its direction, but I loved it. So sharply funny though that, at times, I caught myself jaw-dropped. (I was listening to the audiobook alongside reading, although I ended up going back to reread the passages I’d listened to, because it was so good. The audio production is terrific.) Glad to hear that you enjoyed Miracle at St. Anna so much too!

    • Naomi says:

      Now I look forward to reading the other two I haven’t read yet; Colour of Water and Song Yet Sung. Have you read either of these?

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