It never ceases to amaze me how really little I know about US history despite having had a remarkable course in high school and reading throughout my adult years. The Good Lord Bird is an almost comedic look at a snapshot of the life of John Brown, abolitionist. It is also amazing that I went to college in a town that play a prominent role in his life and the staging of his raid on Harper's Ferry and I never really understood the importance of Chambersburg. I can't tell you how many times I walked past the historical marker there. If only as youth we would have paid attention to our surroundings.
McBride's novel opens in Kansas where John Brown becomes involved in a skirmish near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas in 1857. He kidnaps the narrator of the novel, a black youth, Henry, whom Brown mistakes for a girl and thus becomes Henrietta. Brown nicknames him as Onion and the two are off on what is sometimes a rollicking adventure. With some of his sons, Brown's gang travels east as he develops his plan for eliminating slavery in the country. Along the way they find an ivory-billed woodpecker that is known as the "Good Lord Bird." One of its feathers is sure to bring you a peace that will last your entire life.
The reader sees Brown as a deeply religious man who firmly believes that with the African-American help, there may be a chance to eradicate slavery in this country. Brown is also comedic and with some of his observations will have the reader chuckle or laugh right out loud. One of the most humorous scenes is when Onion begins to have a bit of pining for a woman when s/he is staying at a whore house. Brown wants to make sure that s/he is still pure and has not "commingled" without benefit of marriage.
There are other noteworthy figures who play a prominent roll in The Good Lord Bird. Frederick Douglass is introduced in Rochester, NY when Brown goes to live with him for a couple of months. McBride does not treat Douglass reverently, but rather portrays him as an alcoholic and womanizer. These character flaws were hinted at in Transatlantic, but not nearly as blatant as in McBride's book. Onion meets Harriet Tubman, who would love to have been more involved in Brown's plot, except for being so ill. In a poignant scene she gives Onion her scarf.
For me the most interesting parts of the book came as the actual raid on Harper's Ferry was being staged. The accumulation of weapons and the working of the details were fascinating and now spur me a trip to the actual place. Although John Brown, his men, and his cause have had treatment in many fiction and nonfiction books, this one was a most memorable one for me. It had history, wonderful writing, and a human interest side. Onion is definitely a character for the ages.
It was also a privilege to hear James McBride speak on his book, its writing and his view of our world today.
"John Brown Historical Marker," ExplorePAHistory.com, <http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-FC> accessed 11 November 2014.