In the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown hit the state of Kansas like a tornado. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were already at each other's throats by the time Brown arrived to avenge the sacking of Lawrence by a pro-slavery mob, but soon his name would strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the state's pro-slavers. His story does not easily lend itself to comedy, but much of The Good Lord Bird, James McBride's fictional account of Brown's attempt to start an armed slave rebellion in the South, is as funny as it is serious.
Told through eyes of Henry Shackleford, a little slave boy whom Brown mistakes for a girl, the novel offers a factually accurate portrayal of Brown's deeds and end that is somewhat distorted by the innocence of its narrator. Because Henry (who pretends to be "Henrietta" for almost the entirety of the book) is telling the story, all the characters, when they speak, do so in the vernacular and tone of a little black boy who has lived his entire life within the confines of one tiny Kansas community. Admittedly, the conversations can be a little jarring at times but they are a constant reminder that everything is being filtered through the eyes of a child.
James McBride is a master of characterization and the beauty of The Good Lord Bird comes from the distinct personalities he creates for Brown, several of his sons and one of his daughters (Brown fathered 22 children by two wives), Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and so many of the fictional characters with whom they interact. McBride's approach, as is generally the case with the best historical fiction, is a vivid reminder that history is more than facts and dates. It is about real people who had the same hopes and dreams that motivate people today, and seldom was their story as black and white as it appears in history books.
By story's end, a rather beautiful bond has developed between John Brown and his "little Onion," and their relationship is one that readers will long remember. The child grows close to a slow-witted son of Brown's, falls in love (still disguised as a girl child) with one of Brown's daughters, is awed by the persona of Harriet Tubman, and forms a rather disparaging opinion of Frederick Douglas whom he/she sees as more politician than activist. Almost lost in the story is the tragic end that Brown inflicts upon himself, members of his family, and others who believe as he does.
Bottom Line: The Good Lord Bird is an excellent piece of historical fiction that revisits one of the key events and periods in American history. Readers will, I think, find it helpful to remind themselves of the key elements of John Brown's history beforehand as it adds a certain amount of tension to the book's reading.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)