Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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.

the good Lord bird

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.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

  1. What an interesting book – I had not heard of it before. My only context about Harper’s Ferry comes from Geraldine Brooks’ March, when the father is motivated to join the Civil War after hearing John Brown speak at a rally. I would have liked to know more about why Henry dressed like a girl – and how that changed his experiences in the book. Guess I’ll have to read it for myself! Thanks for a fun review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Martha! Yay, I found a good book you haven’t read yet! I think you’d enjoy this one. As I was reading I thought about March, too. In particular, I recall Mr. March losing a lot of money on a John Brown venture. That was consistent with The Good Lord Bird – the man was a financial black hole. If I recall correctly, once John Brown decided Henry was a girl and gave him a dress, he went with it because it was the path of least resistance. Then there was no turning back, plus Henry liked that he didn’t have to fight or lift heavy things. 🙂

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      • John Brown is such a fascinating character – so much good and so much bad. No surprise he catches the eye of good novelists!

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  2. Loved, loved, loved this book, and discovering a new to me author! It was fun revisiting history with HUMOR! One of my book clubs suggested his King Kong Jones which I just picked up at the library “

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Now, that book sounds interesting! I’m not much for war books, but I chose to read a short one, due to the character being from where my husband is from (Minnesota) and read Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen. I honestly never realized men from Minnesota had traveled east to get involved with the war, as I’m from New Jersey and I suppose all our history classes focused on the local folks. This book was graphic but educational and showed the effects of PTSD back in the day. War is no good, no matter what the time.

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    • Hi Karen! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book you read. I can’t imagine what Civil War soldiers went through and the fact that men from places like Minnesota volunteered to fight is a real testament to their convictions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great book this was! I too read The Good Lord Bird and really thought it was well done. Visiting the state capitol in
    Topeka over ten years ago, I still remember a beautiful mural with a crazy looking John Brown. While I was reading this
    book, I thought of that mural often! McBride masterfully portrays Brown as a bumbling, disorganized, religious zealot yet
    as you pointed out Michelle, a very likable and compassionate character. So well done. Henrietta stole the show though!
    There were so many times that I laughed out loud while reading this book. My wife, who also read it, didn’t laugh nearly
    as much as I did and she chalked it up to silly boy humor. I guess I love silly boy humor because I still laugh just thinking
    about this book. So many great quips and one-liners! Finally, despite being fiction, the book succeeds in telling an accurate
    enough tale about John Brown and what happened at Harper’s Ferry. Great choice! Will have to look into King Kong Jones.

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  5. What an interesting read. I agree with your assessment, Michelle, that McBride gave a pretty complete picture of the complexities of John Brown as a person. Having Henry/Henrietta as the storyteller made the book for me. And, yes, it had several funny parts as well as some great conversation. I enjoyed learning more about Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry as well as how that was a catalyst for the Civil War. Good book!

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