McBride, James: The Good Lord Bird (2013)

Do you know the feeling when you finished a book, but you just want to keep holding it for a little while? The Good Lord Bird is a book that made me feel just that.

I tend to be sceptical when a novel is advertised with terms such as “outrageously entertaining”, “altogether original”, “imaginative” and “magnificent”. Especially “altogether original” seems a little out there. I mean…this is the 21st century – surely it can’t be that original, right?

However, in the case of The Good Lord Bird, the praise certainly seems justified. I don’t know about the ‘altogether’ part, but the novel is definitely original – at least it’s unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

It tells the story of the abolitionist John Brown, who played an important role in the outbreak of the American Civil War. I must admit that I’d never heard of this historical figure before, which made reading about him all the more interesting. I do wish I’d had some previous knowledge about him before reading the novel though, as to better be able to judge how accurate the depiction of his person in it is. Well…I guess I’ve only got myself to blame for that.

The story is told from the point of view of the – as far as I can tell fictional – young slave Henry Shackleford, who joins Brown’s group after an attack on his master. When Brown first lays eyes on him, he mistakes Henry for a girl and nicknames him ‘Onion’. After some initial (failed) attempts at clarification, Henry finally adopts a female identity and lives among Brown and his fellow abolitionists in the disguise of a young girl. He soon comes to realise that being a girl has its upsides when living with a group of outlaws, as nobody expects him to join them on the battlefield.

It quickly becomes clear from Henry’s narration that he neither grasps the magnitude of Browns intention to overthrow the institution of slavery, nor takes the old man seriously. He would like to go back to his old life – an option that isn’t available to him after the death of his old master. As he doesn’t want to join Brown’s fight against slavery, he spends most of the novel waiting for an opportunity to escape into freedom, which makes him an interesting narrator, who presents an outsider perspective on the dynamics within Brown’s group of abolitionists. The abolitionists gathered in this group are all white, which makes it even harder for Henry to understand the motivation for their fight against slavery. He quickly comes to think of Brown, whom he calls ‘the old man’, as a delusional madman, which isn’t surprising considering the size of his group of supporters (very small), the fact that most of the black slaves he endeavoured to enlist for his cause were actually too afraid to join his forces and the nonetheless unwavering optimism with which Brown is portrayed talking about his plans.

Although I wish I’d known more about the historical background, The Good Lord Bird still made for a very enjoyable read. The story is narrated in a surprisingly lighthearted and occasionally even humorous way, which adds a quirkiness to the novel that is rare in historical fiction. I tried to come up with at least one complaint, but I couldn’t – if you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know that means something! My only complaint is about my lack of knowledge, but that is hardly McBride’s fault – if anything, his novel might have helped me to fill a couple of historical gaps, and that is always something to strive for!

Let me know:

Do you know about John Brown? If you’ve read The Good Lord Bird: can you let me know how accurately he is portrayed in the novel?


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