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Publisher's Summary

National Book Award, Fiction, 2013
From the best-selling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade - and who must pass as a girl to survive.
Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town - with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.
Over the ensuing months, Henry - whom Brown nicknames Little Onion - conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 - one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.
An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.
©2013 James McBride (P)2013 Penguin Audiobooks
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

By A. Hatch on 12-13-13

Abolition Huck Finn arouses interest in history

Who was your favorite character and why?

McBride's depiction of John Brown is fascinating. His greatest trait is his blind faith. But his blind faith is also his undoing. Believing that he's getting messages directly from God deafens him to the advice of his companions. You know the story is going to end badly for him. So listening to it you're begging him to listen, just once, to the advice that will make his plan succeed. That's the backbone of the novel. John Brown is surrounded by people with weaker convictions than him, who end up following him, for all the right reasons, to their own doom. He's a really tragic hero, who fails at his plan, but ends up making a difference through martyrdom.

Any additional comments?

If I were a history teacher, I'd use this book to make my students care about the boring stuff that led up to the Civil War. I'm not a fan of the Civil War, despite plenty of great movies and books on the subject. Let's face it. It's a national embarrassment. Too much Civil War is like having a loaded diaper shoved in your face. And yet, I found myself staying up late doing research about what set the stage for the Civil War because of this book: Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, Mexican-American War, Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas... the battle for balance between slave states and free states for their respective votes in Washington D.C. None of these are mentioned in the novel, but I found myself spending hours reading up on them. And following the timeline of the novel: homesteading and the politics of granting land to encourage westward immigration from the big cities where unemployment was causing it's own difficulties. After John Brown failed, the south mustered up militias to prevent slave rebellions, which in turn gave them a military advantage that the north took years to catch up to. There are a great many interesting social dynamics alluded to by this telling of the botched raid on Harper's Ferry. Suddenly I care about a part of US history that never held my interest. James McBride finds sympathy and flaws in all these different characters at odds with one another. Everyone has warts, but you come to understand their humanity. You start to understand the way people thought at a different time and yearn for them to see the light. It's really engaging. And the gem of it all is the trick of telling it through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who is just trying to save his own skin. This character's commentary on the more important historical stuff clashing with his self-preservation is hilarious.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful


By Melinda on 08-27-13

An Interesting Re-Telling of a Little Known Man

This is a quaint historical novel about the abolitionist John Brown, who's deeds and follies set the stage for the American Civil War. At first, I had a hard time listening to the chortling of "The Onion" a 10 to 12 year-old boy who was put into a dress and apparently lived as a woman for 17 years. After a couple of hours, I got into the voice...and the book is quite hysterical in some areas. I had to look it up to see if John Roberts was a real person or not, just because his escapades seemed so unrealistic. But, John Roberts did live, although I doubt the boy/girl nicknamed "The Onion" is a real person. But Onion is the perfect vehicle for telling this story. He is a child whom everyone treats as a girl, and for that reason, he could get into places and do things that a boy could not have been able to.

I enjoyed this book because it was funny and the voice actor was really quite good...after I got used to the sound of his voice. Audible makes a mistake when reading the introduction, because you think it is going to sound like that the whole way though. They have done that with other books that I did not appreciate.

Through the eyes of The Onion (so nicknamed because John Roberts hands the kid this rotten/petrified onion he kept as a good luck charm, but The Onion doesn't understand why he has been given this hideous rotten piece of crap masquerading as an onion, so he eats it. Then John Roberts always protects him, proclaiming that "She's my lucky charm" (I guess because s/he ate the onion instead of putting it in his/her pocket).

There are lots of funny scenes where the kid's true identity is almost unmasked, but while reading the bible on evening on a porch in Virginia, the boy realizes that a body, male or female, black or white is simply a shell and who one is inside and the outer shell doesn't make a bit of difference. I was touched by that, and it is true, IMO.

I don't like to reveal much of a book's plot points or the way it ends....but I found it very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who likes a farcical historical novel. I read about it on the NPR's website and went straight to Audible and bought it and I'm glad I did. It is witty, not too gory and I quite enjoyed it. It's a bit like Tom Robbins meets Edward P. Jones to write about a part of American Slavery and one man's feverish desire (driven by the Lord!) to bring an end to slavery. Oh...and we get to meet Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman in a way that we have never met them before.

All and all, a very enjoyable read. I can see it as a movie...maybe directed by the Cohen Brothers....who would be perfect for the tone of the book.

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10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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