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 and not as he imagined.
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 this 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. Brown believed that black people in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 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”, riot, or rally 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, John 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 John 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. John 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 shared 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." Indeed.
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.