The Good Lord Bird

James McBride

Riverhead Books (Penguin Group)

I don’t know what it is, but every time the Old Man started talking holy, just the mention of his Maker’s name made him downright dangerous. A kind of electricity climbed over him. His voice become like gravel scrapin’ a dirt road. Something raised up in him. His old, tired frame dropped away, and in its place stood a man wound up like a death mill. It was most unsettling thing to see…He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

                          from  The Good Lord Bird


Riding with the divinely/diabolically inspired John Brown

It’s 1856 on the Kansas-Missouri border; a time when you could be stopped on a lonely road by a group of armed men asking, “Are you Pro-Slave or Free State?” How you answered would determine whether you made it home that night.

The Kansas Territory was a battlefield, being fought between those who wanted it to enter the union a slave state and those who were just as adamant that it become a free state. There was no lack on either side of extremists willing to slaughter families or entire populations of frontier towns for their beliefs.

James McBride, author of the moving and tender memoir, The Color of Water, captures this turbulent time in his novel, The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

The story is narrated by Henry Shackleford, nicknamed “Onion,” who as a 10-year old boy is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, he of Harper’s Ferry fame. Onion is light-skinned and comely, and, dressed only in a potato sack as slave children often were, Brown mistakes him for a girl. Though he at first resents this, Onion soon realizes that it’s in his best interest to maintain this guise. (“You just trying to save your skin.”/ “Why not? It covers my body.”)

Hovering over the story is the character of Brown, the “Old Man”—sentimental, murderous, possibly crazy, and, depending upon one’s point of view at the time, divinely or diabolically inspired. (“He got downright holy when it was killing time. ‘Take thine own hand and split an ax with it,’ he said. ‘That’s Eucclestsies twelve seven or thereabouts.’”)

By the time he’s twelve, Onion has been recaptured and is working (still as a girl) in a saloon and whorehouse, where he falls in love with the beautiful but hardened Pie; and where it’s become increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he’s a boy. He’s freed a second time by Brown, and finds himself on the road to Harper’s Ferry.

In a number of ways, The Good Lord Bird reminded me of another story, also set in Missouri, also set in the pre-Civil War years. It, too, had a boy who like Onion, though white, needed to use all his wits and wiles and flexible ethics to survive a series of adventures; who encountered a number of colorful and memorable characters, and who told his story also in a distinctive voice, employing humor and satirical insight into his society and the institution of slavery. And as I recall, at one point Huck disguises himself as a girl, too.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.