April 23, 2021

The Good Lord Bird by author James McBride

I had only a vague recollection of abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harpers Ferry before the Civil War, but James McBride’s historical fiction account,  The Good Lord Bird, makes this time period burst to life. The main character is Henry, a young slave who is mistaken for a girl and spends the majority of the book in a bonnet and dress in the orbit of “Captain Brown” who dubs her “Onion.” Not since Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has there been such an endearing and infuriating young character.

Brown with Onion at his side fights battles against slave owners in Kansas and Missouri, visits Frederick Douglass in Rochester, NY and Harriet Tubman in Canada and finally prepares for a grand battle at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Both black and white  people, sometimes reluctantly, join Brown’s rag tag group to further the cause of slavery abolition in the United States. Brown’s campaign was seen as a great failure at the time, but history shows him to be the harbinger of the Civil War to come which finally dealt a fatal blow to slavery.

James McBride who won the 2013 National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird,” is the son of an African-American preacher and a Polish Jewish mother. His memoir “The Color of Water” is now read in high schools and universities across America.”The Good Lord Bird” is sure to find its way onto academic reading lists as well.

I listened to this work in audio book form using the  Chicago Public Library’s Overdrive app, masterfully narrated by actor Michael Boatman who brought out the comedy as well as pathos in McBride’s writing.

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