The Good Lord Bird
Happy Black History Month (or, as it is known to Millennials and the politically-correct, African-American History Month)! There are lots of great recommended-reading lists that suggest books to read in celebration and recognition of this month (like this one or this one). Tried and true favorites like Native Son by Richard Wright, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Beloved (or Sula or The Bluest Eye) by Toni Morrison are list frequenters. But, this year, I noticed a new addition to some lists: last year’s National Book Award Winner for Fiction, The Good Lord Bird.
The Good Lord Bird is written as the memoir of Henry Shackelford, a 103-year-old black man who was forcibly freed from slavery by John Brown when he was just a kid.
His account begins: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”
Here is author James McBride reading that passage for his National Book Award Finalist Reading:
John Brown is an abolitionist and an infamous rabble-rouser. He does not shy away from a fight for the cause. During one kerfuffle at a pro-slave tavern in the Kansas Territory, where shots are fired and blood is drawn, he “frees” (i.e., kidnaps from his slave-owner) Henry. But Henry is a small and pretty little boy, dressed in a burlap sack, and John Brown mistakes him for a girl. He gives Henry a dress, takes “her” under his wing, and henceforth treats her like a member of his family.
At first, Henry doesn’t dispel the confusion, because he’s treading lightly (he has, after all, just been kidnapped). But, after a while, he realizes that being a girl isn’t so bad. He is lazy, and girls don’t have to lift things or fight in battles. So he wears a dress and plays his role.
“Henrietta” gets nicknamed “Onion” after one of “Old Man” Brown’s good luck charms. Brown considers her as lucky as the feather of the Good Lord Bird (the now-extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker—“It’s so pretty that when man sees it, he says, ‘Good Lord.’”) and believes that, when she’s around, the Lord will make sure the abolitionists win all the battles.
Henry quickly adapts to his life with Old Man Brown and his army of Free Staters, the Pottawatomie Rifles. This is the era of Bleeding Kansas, and Henry is with them for the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. The book culminates with Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry.
The Good Lord Bird is filled with humor, heart, and history (or, more accurately, “history”—in quotation marks). Reviewers have accurately compared it to Huckleberry Finn on one hand (“great books that send people on journeys through slave-holding territory”) and Django Unchained on the other (because they “signal a new way of talking — indeed, joking — about race in America today: it is officially O.K. to be boldly irreverent about not just the sacrosanct but also the catastrophic”).
Rating: 4/5 🔫
What a relief! This is the first award-winner I’ve read in a while that has lived up to the hype. And it is, by far, the best book I’ve read in 2014.
The writing, which is in Henry’s distinct voice and dialect, is clever, straight-forward, and a lot of fun to read:
I was exhausted with being a girl a week into the stay, for a damsel out west on the trail could spit, chaw tobacco, holler, grunt, and fart, and gather no more attention to herself than a bird would snatching crumbs off the ground. In fact, your basic Pro Slaver found them behaviors downright likable in a girl, for there weren’t nothing better to a feller out on the plains than finding a girl who could play cards like a feller and clean up the bottom of a bottle of whiskey for him when he was pie-eyed. But in Rochester, by God, you couldn’t so much as doodle your fingers without insulting somebody on the question of a lady behaving thus and so, even a colored lady—especially a colored lady, for the high-siddity coloreds up there was all tweet and twit and whistle.
The characters are fantastic and hilarious caricatures (Fred Brown, the kind and gentle idiot; John Brown, the God-loving lunatic abolitionist; Pie, the gorgeous bordello worker who mothers Henry and likes rough sex in her free-time). Their plans, adventures, and battles are equally over-the-top and fast-paced. The result: the book is over 400-pages long, but it reads very quickly.
And, despite the fact that the truth is a bit stretched, The Good Lord Bird is an excellent fictionalized account of the Bleeding Kansas era and John Brown, an early, stalwart, gun-slinging abolitionist.
Lazy, mistake-making Henry is not exactly a Black History Month hero . . . but he does show courage and adaptability. And the book’s focus on the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement (with cameos by Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass), along with James McBride’s great writing, certainly redeem it as a great book to read in celebration of this month. You don’t need an excuse or a reason to read a book this enjoyable, but if you’re looking for one, Black History Month is certainly a good one.
Who should read it: anyone who hasn’t yet read a great book in 2014; people who are interested in fun, irreverent historical fiction (no, that’s not an oxymoron!).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- We the Animals by Justin Torres (one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for September 2011)
- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (a New York Times Best Book of the Year for 2011, long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2011, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012)