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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: 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.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “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 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.”

  1. October 31, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for a great review. I have had this book on my TBR pile for some time and would consider recommending it to our Thursday night book group. Several years ago we read Cloudsplitter and I thought it was well-written covering most aspects of John Brown’s life well with the exception of the raid on Harper’s Ferry. The lack of attention to that most famous aspect of Brown’s life was disappointing, especially given the length of the book. I was familiar with the history of John Brown and his place in the abolitionist movement, but that only made my disappointment with Banks’s approach that much greater. It sounds like the difference in the choice of the narrator would make a different approach to the reading experience.

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    • November 3, 2019 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks for your message.

      I can’t believe that Banks managed to write 866 pages about John Brown without including the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

      I hope you’ll let me know when you’ve read The Good Lord Bird, I’m curious to read your thoughts about it. I enjoyed Henry/Henrietta/Onion’s voice.

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      • November 3, 2019 at 2:37 pm

        I was not clear in my reference to the raid on Harper’s Ferry. It was included, but merely given slight treatment given the massive size of the novel. It was that treatment that was a disappointment coming, as it did, after hundreds of pages of what was a fascinating fictional life.

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        • November 4, 2019 at 9:51 pm

          OK, it’s clearer, thanks.
          I’m a bit put off by big books: I always wonder if the author couldn’t have said as much in less pages…

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