Saturday, July 5, 2014

Level the Literacy Playing Field - Adopt a Library

OK, this is an idea that has been rolling around in my head for months.

First, back in February of this year I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Big Talks From Small Libraries, a free online conference sponsored by the Nebraska Library Commission and the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. One of the speakers was Rachel Reynolds Luster, a librarian in Missouri who was featured in a story on NPR in 2013. She said that she received thousands of cash and book donations from all over the country after that story aired on NPR. From this outpouring of love and cash, it reinforces, to me, that people LOVE libraries and only want to support them, especially in small, rural communities. But how can anyone support any library nationally?

Based on this story it came to my mind that it would be great if the American Library Association (or some other national library organization) hosted/sponsored/supported an Adopt-a-Library program nationally. This program would allow people from all over the world to pick and choose the state and/or library that they wanted to donate to. As library director in a small rural community, I am quite sure there are more people from West Virginia who live outside the state than inside it because of lack of job opportunities here. If there were a nationwide Adopt-a-Library program it would allow libraries in small regions with less tax base to level the literacy playing field. The Adopt-a-Library program could even be as simple as a site that has links to a wish list for every library on Amazon or the like.

Out of State Library Supporters

Also, I have an amazing library supporter in Wisconsin who sends me a few boxes of items every year. This library fan is from West Virginia but no longer lives here, but wanted to support literacy in her home state. So Barb W. (you know who you are, you amazing person, you) contacted the West Virginia Library Commission and asked them about a small "up and coming" library in WV who in turn recommended the Pioneer Library. (Thank you, WVLC!) Many people from West Virginia have to leave to find work. I'm willing to bet that this is the case with MANY small libraries around the United States.

I wrote my BIG IDEA to the ALA and received a kind response from Susan Brandehoff, the Director of Program Development and Partnerships who was encouraging. She also recommended getting in touch with the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and I Love Libraries (an initiative of ALA). I also thought my idea might strike a chord with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). I have librarian friends all over the country. Some have multi-million dollar budgets, others (like my own) have budgets under $35,000 per year. Smaller libraries with smaller budgets cannot compete nor provide the same services as larger libraries in wealthier tax bases. How can we level the library playing field so that every library has the same access to money and materials? Money and materials are the two things that make libraries go.

Who Wants To Have Their Library Adopted?

So there it is. People are passionate about libraries. People want to support libraries not just in their own communities. How can literacy and libraries continue to grow and thrive in small, impoverished parts of the United States? I know the West Virginia Library Commission is always pessimistic, "Prepare for budget cuts." This year West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin cut an entire line item in the state budget for special library projects. Times are tough, people. Let's pool our resources nationally, let's be a big supportive library team.

If we can find a national library organization willing to take this on, this could be an amazing place for little libraries to post their Amazon Wish Lists (it doesn't have to be connected with Amazon) and have complete and total strangers from all over the country (& world) who support libraries, literacy and lifelong learning buy items or contribute cash for your library. This could kind of be like Kickstarter for libraries. Let's do this people. Who's in?

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Civil War in Dry Fork: The Historic Ride of Jane Snyder

There is a lot of history in Harman, West Virginia.

Indians migrated through here and hunted here. Early settlers came here after the American Revolution, some as Tories defeated by the Colonials. Many settlers were Scotch-Irish, German, or Dutch. And then came the American Civil War. As all good West Virginians know, we were the only state created out of war because the entire state of Virginia was literally split on the issue of slavery. In many local areas, sentiments were mixed as to whom supported the Federal North, or who supported the Confederate South. Harman favored the Federal (sometimes called Union) troops.

The Civil War Comes to Dry Fork

In 1862, the American Civil War was in full force. Confederate Colonel John D. Imboden was leading a slash and burn campaign through northwestern West Virginia stealing supplies and destroying the railroad. The strategy was to obliterate valuable infrastructure and to leave Federal supporters without supplies.

But the town of Harman in the Dry Fork Valley region of Randolph County, West Virginia, was staunchly Union. There was a team of Federal scouts in the region lead by Captain John Snyder who had a 19-year-old daughter named Mary Jane Snyder, who was mostly called Jane. Jane Snyder is a somewhat legendary figure even though we know she was a real person who lived in this region. The story goes that Jane heard that Imboden was going to capture Parson’s Mill and blow up a B&O train bridge in Rowlesburg. The Federals at Parson’s Mill included Jane’s father, Captain John Snyder. Since Jane knew the few Federal scouts at Parson’s Mill would be horribly outnumbered she rode horseback through some rough country to reach the Mill before Imboden. Most accounts acknowledge that Jane arrived in Parson’s before the Confederates and that she probably saved the Federal troops including her father, and perhaps stopped the railroad bridge from being destroyed.

Consider Don Teter’s version of Jane Snyder’s story from his book “Goin’ Up Gandy:”

“Aug. 14, 1862, Confederate Colonel (later General) John D. Imboden left his camp at Franklin with about three hundred mounted men and, guided by Zeke Harper, rode across the mountains toward Beverly. Imboden hoped to surprise the Federals by riding through Saint George to attack and destroy the B&O Railroad bridge at Rowlesburg, so he avoided the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike across the mountains. They rode along game trails and followed ridges and streams until they reached the Glady Fork, about twelve miles northeast of Beverly, when they turned northward down Glady Fork, toward the Dry Fork.

Meanwhile, word of their presence in the woods had reached Horsecamp Run, and John Snyder’s 19 year old daughter Jane (1843-1908) had ridden down the Dry Fork to warn her father, who had gone to Saint George. She passed the mouth of Glady Fork before Imboden and his men got there, and warned the small group of Federals at Parsons’ Mill in time for them to escape.”

So while some might think that Jane Snyder’s ride was Civil War folklore or fairytale, her remarkable journey was chronicled in the Wheeling Intelligencer from August 22, 1862, “It was Capt. Snider’s daughter who came from Pendleton to bring the news of the advance of the rebels and their strength. She is a brave girl and deserves to be crowned a heroine.”

On August 26, 1862, an alleged eye witness Charles Hooten had his letter published in the Wheeling Intelligencer that concluded, “But for this heroic young lady, Miss Snyder, whose name and heroic deed should be remembered and rewarded, Capt. Hall and his men would, in all probability, have been destroyed."

An Anonymous Poem

A more romanticized version of Jane Snyder’s ride is found in Carrie Harman Roy’s “Captain Snyder and His Twelve of West Virginia (1977)” there is a long account of Jane Snyder’s ride in poem form that includes the following:

“The Midnight Ride of Jane Snyder, Anonymous

Thus they rode in that night which so many remember,
That terrible night of the stormy November,
When the winds through the pines on the mountains were roaring
And the torrents re-echoed with splashing and pouring
But the rebels while flanking the Federal pickets
Were flanked by a woman who rode through the thickets,
O'er by-paths and no paths, o'er mountains that rose
To the clouds, and their summits were spattered with snows;
And she out-rode, the Rebels and came in ahead.
They were balked, they were beat; for the Yankees had fled.
She had warned them in time, but no moment to spare;”

While I hate to pick at poems, as a historian I have to mention that Jane’s ride was in August (not November, but what rhymes with August?), and Ms. Snyder’s ride was in the early morning hours, not in the night.

So what really happened in August of 1862? By several accounts, Jane Snyder’s solo journey across 30-40 miles may have saved the lives and freedom of some Federal troops. Certainly the act of this one brave teen did not change the tide of the Civil War but it did send a clear message to the Confederates: this is not your territory and you are not wanted here. It also says much about the brave teen, Jane Snyder, who was willing and able to take a long journey by herself on horseback for the sake of her father and the Federal cause that he defended.

Not to deflate the history of Jane Snyder, but Imboden eventually returned in November of the same year and easily captured about 30 Federal troops at Parson’s Mill in West Virginia. This time, Imboden’s plan to blow up the railroad bridge at Rowlesburg was foiled when he learned that Federal troops were on their way.

Women have always played a powerful role in wars but much of that history may have been overlooked by the men who wrote the history books. Jane Snyder stands as a reminder of the power of women, family, and teenagers during wartime.

[Side note: It is interesting to note the discrepancies on Mary Jane Snyder Bennett's tombstone from Idaho which has an incorrect birth date and year. Some sources list her birth date as May 7 and her birth year as 1843. The tombstone seems to reflect May 17 as her birth date and 1849 as her birth year. I found Mary Jane Snyder in the 1860 census (parents John & Lucinda) and her birth year is estimated as 1843.]

Sources listed below are available for study at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia. Also, this is a great site that includes a picture of Jane Snyder in her later years.

Roy, C. H. (1977). Captain Snyder and his twelve of West Virginia. New York, NY: Carlton Press.

Teter, D. (1977). Goin'up Gandy: A history of the Dry Fork region of Randolph and Tucker counties, West Virginia. Parsons, W. Va.: McClain Print.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spring Fling: Create, Collaborate, Communicate

The theme of this years spring fling West Virginia Library Association conference was "Create, Collaborate, Communicate". I may be wrong, but it seems like more folks come out for the spring conference than for the fall conference.

Conference Sessions

Held at the Days Hotel in Flatwoods, West Virginia, the first session I attended was "The New Change in Learning Express" presented by Susan Hayden of the West Virginia Library Commission. Presented with grace and humor, Ms. Hayden taught an overflowing conference room of librarians how to navigate the 3.0 version of the Learning Express through the West Virginia Info Depot.

The second session I attended was "Free Stuff From the Foundation Center" presented by Olivia Bravo of the Kanawha County Public Library. This was a helpful and informative presentation that talked about the resources available at and

Waffle Lunch

For lunch, I had the pleasure of going to a local waffle house with other representatives from affiliates of the Upshur County Library. (And thanks, UCPL, for the yummy lunch!) It is so nice to get a chance to see colleagues in other rural libraries who are strong, creative, and resourceful folks who love their jobs. You are all inspirational to me!

After lunch, I lead a meeting of the WVLA Directors Roundtable. There were about 20 attendees in the meeting and we took some time to consider a bookmark that highlights "The Power of West Virginia Libraries". We also had a chance to talk about funding loss, lack of Bibliostat participation by academic and special libraries, and about our goals for the roundtable group. My point of view is that this group of library leaders can work together to make this into whatever we want. As library directors we can lean on each other for support, input, and progress. Just like the theme says: Let's create, collaborate, and communicate with each other to help libraries move forward with secure funding and clear goals.

Mock Board Meeting

Perhaps the most helpful session (for me) of the day was "What a Board Meeting Should Look Like" presented by the Marsh County Public Library Board with Judy K. Rule, director. A board meeting packet is mailed to board members a few days prior to the meeting so that everything may go smoothly and quickly at the board meeting. This board whipped through an entire meeting in 30 minutes. Very impressive. The Library Director's Report was also a part of the board packet and included many important topics regarding funding, legislation, statistics, fundraising, and circulation. This is a model that I will encourage my library board to follow as it made this board meeting fast, friendly, and efficient.

Sunshine Law

There are also laws that need to be abided by regarding transparency in local government. The Sunshine Law mandates that library board meetings be posted publically, for example, in the local newspaper. The agenda must also be publicized prior to the meeting. Minutes of the previous meeting need to be in the "board packet" mailed to all members of the board.

By that time it was time for me to head home to get ready for my Collection Development class. It was great to be re-energized by all the great librarians at the WVLA Spring Fling. Thank you, WVLA, for this inspiring learning opportunity with a great view from the hilltop where the Days Hotel stands in Flatwoods, WV.

As a side note: I acquired 50 new DVDs for the library at a recent estate sale. Some of the new titles include: Rambo, Die Hard, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, Ike, Ghost Rider, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and many more. Stop by The Pioneer Memorial Public Library to check out what's new.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Who Was Joe Brown of Whitmer, West Virginia?

A patron of the Pioneer Memorial Public Library was in the other day talking about a man named Joe Brown who was lynched in Whitmer, WV in 1909. He said that he had heard that chief of police of Whitmer, Scott White, admired two pearl-handled pistols of Joe Brown and had confiscated them when he arrested Brown. Later, Brown shot Scott in the head wounding him severely and the townspeople of Whitmer took Joe Brown and hung him for his offenses.

Who Was Joe Brown?

As a amateur historian and folklore follower I had to ask, 'Who was Joe Brown?' It turns out there is quite a bit that has been published regarding this episode in West Virginia history. An article from the now defunct Randolph Enterprise from March 25, 1909 reports that, "Joe Brown, a notorious character who had earned the reputation of an outlaw expiated his crime in shooting Scott White, Chief of Police of Whitmer and a son of Wash White mayor of the same town, early last Friday morning when Brown was taken from the jail at Whitmer by an orderly party of masked men and strung up to a flag pole on the principal street of the town."

Just this one paragraph leaves many questions about the events leading up to the lynching of Joe Brown. Allegedly, a party of 50-100 masked men overcame the prison guards at gun point and took Joe Brown to be hung. In a town as small as Whitmer, I speculate that the masked vigilantes would have been known to most. Also, the Chief of Police, Scott White, was the son of Whitmer Mayor, Wash White, implying that the power in the town of Whitmer was held by the White family.

Outlaw or Victim?

Another line from the above-referenced article says, "It was generally understood here that Brown also was to be brought to Elkins to have his arm dressed but these plans were altered and Brown retained in the Whitmer jail." The Chief of Police was taken to Elkins for medical attention on that evening's train. Joe Brown had a shattered shooting arm, and yet he was not taken for medical attention. This might imply that the animosity for Joe Brown was so great that he was left in the jail to suffer and to possibly allow for the capture and lynching to take place. Clearly, Joe Brown had a lot going against him in Whitmer.

The final line in the news article also reveals that, "Learning of the lynching upon his return from Washington, Governor Glasscock immediate[e]ly communicated with the Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney, insisting upon a complete investigation. It is possible that the lynching may be investigated but it is doubtful if any more information could be secured than is now known for Brown was so cordially hated by the people of Dry Fork that those who composed the lynching party would be protected in every way even by those who did happen to known everything connected with the lynching." To this researcher's knowledge, no one was ever held accountable for the death of Joe Brown.

So, who was Joe Brown? Where did he come from? What are the true facts of his life and death? According to the same article, Joe Brown was born in Tazewell County, Virginia around 1861. He was hung around 1:30am on Friday, March 19, 1909. The story made the New York Times. This article says that Brown was hung from a telegraph pole while others say it was a flag pole. Either way, it was not a pretty sight. There is a photograph that was published of the dead man hanging but I will spare gentle readers from this sight.

According to historian David Armstrong, Joseph Brown was born in Tazewell County, Virginia, on June 29, 1868, to parents William Patton Brown and Lucinda (Whitt) Brown. Joe Brown married Susan Snyder Summerfield in Harman, WV. Brown's death record gives him a first initial of "W." and indicates that he was married and aged 45 at his death. I do like that Armstrong tries to give more positive attributions to Brown, but by most accounts he was a violent alcoholic and sure shot who enjoyed shooting men's suspenders off for fun.

Side Effects of the Lynching

The lynching of Joe Brown had many repercussions. In the book "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside" by Ronald L. Lewis, it is stated that Joe Brown had a sock stuffed down his throat after he was lynched in an attempt to speed up the dying process. Lewis also says that Whitmer could not get a liquor license approved two months later perhaps due to the drunken and violent nature of Joe Brown and his lynching. In an anecdotal telling of the tale on WV Angler, it is said that the lynch mob spent some time drinking before they did the deed.

On December 13, 1911, The Randolph Enterprise reports that Charles Edward Hedrick committed suicide because he was involved in the lynching of Joe Brown and could not resolve his actions. He was found by the railroad tracks with a self-inflicted bullet to the head. Hedrick was once a constable of the Dry Fork district and later served as chief of police for Whitmer.

The real facts about Joe Brown, who he was, and what happened over a hundred years ago in a remote rural town in West Virginia may never be known. What is fascinating is that people today are still talking about it and asking questions about the life and death of Joe Brown. There is no doubt that back then wild and wonderful West Virginia was also wild and wooly.

Do you love West Virginia history? Check out the West Virginia section at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library the next time you are in Harman.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Fizz, Boom, Read! Summer Reading Program at Pioneer Library, WV

I am having an exciting near-spring season preparing for the 2014 Summer Reading Program at the Pioneer Public Library in Harman, West Virginia. I'm taking a class in collection development this semester through the University of Tennessee, and it has allowed me to focus on choosing books to promote, books to purchase, and fun hands-on programs for kids and teens. The nationwide summer reading program theme is "Fizz, Boom, Read", and it is a science-focused reading program. Are you ready?

Collaborative Summer Library Program 2014

We received a large volume of suggested activities and crafts from the Collaborative Summer Library Program. There are also reading resources on their website, books they suggest to tie into the science theme, but the overall suggestion list is lacking in certain areas. For example, I see that the CSLP suggests many books that are in mid-series. For example, they suggest "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins, (I think because it has an firey title), but you really have to read "The Hunger Games" first to understand the narrative. Another odd title suggestion was "I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863" by Lauren Tarshis. I think this book was recommended because it literally shows artillery "booms" on the front cover. There are books about white male inventors and scientists but very few that are about women and minorities in the field of science. (Not even a Marie Curie book? Sigh.)

Women and Minorities in Science: Children's Books

There are hundreds of other books that CSLP could have suggested but did not, but I have spent some time researching books that fill in the large gaps in the standard packaged suggestion binder. If you are a librarian with a summer reading program at your library I hope you consider this too. As librarians, we may not be movers and shakers, we may be more quiet seed planters. Just by having a variety of books available and featured allows young scientists and inventors to dream, plot, and learn. In the 21st century, still on the continuum of the civil rights movement we need our collections to reflect our audience and to glimpse beyond as well.

Summer Reading Suggestions

So, if you are a library with a summer reading program or if you just want some great suggestions of current and diverse science books for children I have a list below that you may find helpful. Many of these books are award winning books including: The Newbery Medal, The Caldecott Medal, or the National Science Teachers Association. Also, I have placed Amazon links within this blog entry. If you choose to buy books from Amazon using these links, the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, WV, gets a 4% cut. And, maybe I missed some. Do you have good suggestions for current science books for kids? My list is by no means complete. Please comment or email to let me know.

Animal Grossapedia
Bartholomew and the Oobleck: (Caldecott Honor Book) (Classic Seuss)
Benjamin Banneker (Journey to Freedom)
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition
Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet)
Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth
Flush: The Scoop on Poop Throughout the Ages
Go Ask Alice
Break the Fossil Record (Ivy + Bean, Book 3)
Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought)
Locomotive (Caldecott Medal Book)
The Magic School Bus Blows Its Top: A Book About Volcanoes (Magic School Bus)
Marie Curie (Giants of Science)
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Richard Jackson Books (Atheneum Hardcover))
My First Day
Oh Say Can You Say What's the Weather Today?: All About Weather (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Rachel Carson: Fighting Pesticides and Other Chemical Pollutants
Rosie Revere, Engineer
Something Stinks
Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World
The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning's Dinosaur Discovery
The Moon Book
The New Way Things Work
The Stars
Tracking Tyrannosaurs: Meet T. rex's fascinating family, from tiny terrors to feathered giants (National Geographic Kids)
What If You Had Animal Teeth?
Who Is Jane Goodall? (Who Was...?)
You Are Stardust
Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

Fizz, Boom, Read needs some work, but together we can create a meaningful and fun summer reading program at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library and at your library too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Your Web Site is Valuable - Don't Let Ad Mills on Your Library Website

A few weeks ago I started receiving emails at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library from a person named Elizabeth Turner from a company called Accredited Online Colleges. Ms. Turner asked me to place links to her company on the website for the library. I get requests like this occasionally and mostly ignore them. As a part-time library director I don't have time to answer every request to place links on my website, but Ms. Turner was persistent. In her final emails to me, she used my name and gave me links to others in West Virginia who had placed her links on their sites. (A state Senator, a major city, and one county school website) This is when I got suspicious.

False Nonprofit

I emailed Ms. Turner back asking for more information about her company. Her emails came to me from gmail, which indicated to me that a scam was happening. When I looked at the website in question, there is no geographical location revealed for the company, nor are any administrators or company officers listed by name. Instead, there are ads. "Accredited Online Colleges" is what I call an ad mill; this is a website meant to generate ad clicks which in turn gives revenue back to the site. The '.org' at the end of the company's URL is meant to imply that this is a nonprofit organization which it is not.

Digging deeper: there are no criteria listed for the alleged resources on this company site, indicating zero legitimacy for Accredited Online Colleges. In searching for this company at I see that this company is owned by an entity in Scottsdale, Arizona with a private registration name.

Little Internet Scam, Big Consequences

By now, you may be saying, "But Mary, what's the big deal? No children, puppies, or kittens were harmed in this alleged scam." While this is true, placing a link to a bogus site on a trusted site causes your site and your institution to lose integrity and reliability. As information professionals, we want to give out high-quality information to our students and patrons. Also, this scammer sets themselves up as just trying to help kids get into college. No. They are looking for backlinks which give them a higher Google rating, which will give them more ad clicks and income. You are helping scammers make cash for themselves using your website. Ick.

Just remember fellow librarians and educators: your web space is valuable. Don't give it away to anyone without checking out credentials thoroughly. And thank you, Elizabeth Turner, for your persistence and information. I contacted the West Virginia websites who allowed your links to slip in to let them know that you are not legitimate.

As an aside: Feel free to look up their site and judge for yourself. I will not post a link, but you can type it in. Have you been the victim of an online or email scam? If you need help resolving your issue, please feel free to stop by the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia for assistance.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, A Review

You don’t have to know the history of John Brown and his historic raid on Harpers Ferry, but it helps if you read “The Good Lord Bird” (2013) by James McBride. As a follower of Civil War history, I have often pondered the seeming suicide mission of American abolitionist John Brown. Was John Brown a visionary hero or a mentally ill ‘do gooder’? His famous raid of the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859 is often cited as a harbinger of the American Civil War. Brown’s call to black slaves to rise up and free themselves eventually happened, but not in his lifetime.

John Brown: What Could Have Happened

In “The Good Lord Bird”, McBride creates a fascinating and funny look at what might have happened if John Brown acquired an unlikely good omen in the form of a cross-dressing mixed-race young man called Onion, also known as Henry Shackleford. The story of John Brown is seen from the point of view of an intelligent and resourceful young orphan who rides with John Brown and his men through frontier, mountains, and adventures.

While Brown was a passionate abolitionist, he was not a great strategist or general. (The General is also the nickname for Harriet Tubman, who has a role to play in this novel.) Brown believed that black people in Harpers Ferry would rise up to help him in his cause but the locale lacked black population to assist. From the spark of freedom fire in Harpers Ferry, Brown believed that all African Americans would “hive” to serve the cause of freedom from slavery. But it didn’t happen. While there are many accounts of John Brown, of his adventures and personality, this historic novel’s imagined dialogue is very believable, as well as comical and bittersweet.

Satire From Sainthood?

In many ways, Brown is a revered martyr. How can one make comedy out of a well-intentioned white man who wanted to abolish slavery? MacBride succeeds in creating the voice of Onion who speaks in a less-educated dialect, but has the most significant things to say. “The Good Lord Bird” is well-written and flows smoothly as the story unfolds. History buffs know the ending, that John Brown is unsuccessful in Harpers Ferry. That his sons die. That he is captured, tried, and hung. That Thoreau and Emerson mourn his death. That Frederick Douglas thought he was crazy. But you still have to read James McBride’s version of this American folk tale, the legend of the abolitionist John Brown.

McBride has done his historic homework and presents the series of unfortunate events that lead up to the capture and hanging of John Brown. It all makes more sense. The religious fervor of a man that drove him to try to single-handedly eliminate slavery. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of the life of John Brown is that even unsuccessful acts can eventually lead to success overall. By attempting to create a slave rebellion, Brown brought the issue of slavery in America to the forefront of the national consciousness. So while Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a complete failure in that present moment, it was great PR that helped to bring an end to slavery. One crazy act can change the world.

Frederick Douglas is portrayed as a bit of a poser and letch, to Onion, but eventually meets with Brown and refuses to back him up. Did Douglas see the inevitable failure of Brown’s raid? Did Douglas truly regard Brown as mentally ill? It is refreshing and realistic that McBride chose not to show Brown or Douglas in a sanitized and saintly light. These historic characters are human and believable.

What Is the Good Lord Bird?

The title of the book refers to the ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct, a bird that is so big and beautiful, one has to say “Good Lord” when they see it. Brown gives a good Lord bird feather to Onion and says, “I don’t feel bad about it neither, giving my special thing to you. The Bible says: ‘Take that which is special from thine own hand, and giveth to the needy, and you moveth in the Lord’s path.” Later, we learn that a feather from a good Lord bird gives the owner understanding that lasts a lifetime.

I was curious as to how McBride would paint the character of John Brown, a known religious fanatic with eccentric and progressive ideas about the world. Brown is portrayed as a father figure who over-estimates the character of everyone around him, assuming they share his political beliefs and zeal. He is tireless and wily. While “The Good Lord Bird” is darkly comedic, the character of John Brown is respectfully represented, in all his wire-haired and grey-bearded glory. Not necessarily as the wild-eyed zealot on the front of the Kansas album, from a painting by American artist John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), but as a real and caring human being.

Better Understanding of John Brown

My favorite quote from “The Good Lord Bird” gave me goosebumps, and it comes from Onion who says, "Some things in this world just ain’t meant to be, not in the times we want ’em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that’s to come. There’s a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that’s a heavy load to bear."

McBride’s novel about John Brown and the fight to end slavery transcends historic fiction and dark comedy to become an American classic, as if McBride through research (and time travel) were a true witness to an era that is still murky, complex, and shameful. Masterfully written, the unique and often humorous voice of Onion will make “The Good Lord Bird” hard to forget. As an added bonus for history geeks: there are cameos that include: John Wilkes Booth, Jeb Stewart, Stonewall Jackson, and Harriet Tubman.

"The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride is available via inter-library loan from the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia. Or, if you choose to purchase this book via a link below, the Library gets four percent of the sale as a donation. The library runs largely on public funding and private donations and is always seeking out new sources of funding, including partnering with Amazon as an Associate. (Hence the 4% return to Pioneer.)

You may also read a really excellent review of "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride by New York Times writer Baz Dreisinger here.