In The Good Lord Bird, we get an inside (although fictional) view of abolitionist John Brown’s violent crusade against slavery in the Kansas Territory and subsequent raid on Harper’s Ferry in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s told from the perspective of Henry, who was a ten-year-old slave when he was liberated by Brown and then rode with his “army” for four years, including to Harper’s Ferry.
I read The Good Lord Bird for the 2021 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book set during the Civil War in recognition of the 160th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict. Although the raid on Harper’s Ferry took place a couple of years before the Civil War began, it did a lot to ignite the tensions that would lead to the war, so the book should count for the challenge, right?
The dedication and acknowledgement in The Good Lord Bird are simple but speak volumes about the author’s intent. The dedication reads, “For Ma and Jade, who loved a good whopper,” and the acknowledgement says, “Deeply grateful to those who, over the years, have kept the memory of John Brown alive.” Sure enough, the story, told by young Henry, resembles a finely written tall tale. And this is James McBride’s tribute to John Brown, though he doesn’t gloss over the fact that Brown was an often-violent lunatic.
Henry is taken from his owner when John Brown visits his saloon for a haircut. Brown thinks Henry is a girl and Henry plays the part for the next four years, which makes for some amusing scenarios. For the first couple of years, he rides around with John Brown’s army, which mostly consists of his sons, skirmishing with pro-slavers. This part of the novel took place in my neck of the woods and, assuming it’s even somewhat historically accurate, it was interesting to learn how wild and lawless things were around here.
During this time, we get a good feel for John Brown’s character – he was a disorganized leader, couldn’t meet timelines, had trouble keeping men in his Army, was fanatically religious, and really bad with money. But he was also completely devoted to a hugely important cause and could inspire loyalty with his compassion and acceptance. Although what he was doing in the Kansas Territory was haphazard and not very well-executed, he was building a reputation among slaves and abolitionists back east as a hero in the fight against slavery.
Henry also traveled with Brown to the east coast and Canada, where we meet Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and get a glimpse of what it took to drum up support for his cause (lots of speeches and passing the hat for donations.) The author was pretty tough on Fredrick Douglass but respectfully portrayed Harriet Tubman as the hero that she was.
Finally, the book concludes with the raid on Harper’s Ferry, which Henry also plays a role in (still dressed like a girl). Throughout the novel, we witnessed John Brown’s combination of incompetence and lofty goals, and these were at their peak at Harper’s Ferry. The crazy plan never had a chance. Brown wanted to capture and confiscate arms from the Federal government’s largest armory with an army of about 25 men. He was counting on hundreds of nearby slaves to revolt and join the fight, which never happened. The plan, of course, failed. But despite Brown’s chronic incompetence, or maybe because of it, he won his war against slavery because Harper’s Ferry was a triggering event for the Civil War.
I really liked The Good Lord Bird (the title refers to a rare woodpecker the Brown family considered a talisman). The storytelling was terrific and makes me want to read more of James McBride’s novels (I’ve heard Deacon King Kong is very good). Having Henry as the narrator was brilliant because he made blunt, candid observations you would expect from a ten-year-old boy. These observations were often insightful and funny. I also liked the way John Brown was portrayed as a very complex man with severe shortcomings and truly heroic aspirations and qualities. I think the author succeeded in making this a tribute to him.
How about you? Did you read a book set during the Civil War this month? Tell us about it in the comments.
Reminder – May’s challenge is to read a biography of a famous mother.