This is really an odd, but creative, little story. I would be lying if I said I understood all of it. This is the story of Henry Shackleford and how he came to be acquainted with John Brown, the abolitionist. It is narrated by Henry, who spent several years dressed as a female, with a different identity (Little Onion, AKA Henrietta, AKA Henry), in order to survive after his father died. Not quite a teenager, he saw him killed, in his own shop, before his very eyes. John Brown, present at the scene of the crime (portrayed as a bit addle-brained), thought he heard Henry’s father call him Henrietta before he died. He decided to rescue the “young miss”, convinced that he was liberating “her”, rather than kidnapping “her”; so he set off with “Henrietta” in tow. Henry willingly played the part of a girl in order to be cared for, since he was now an orphan. When Henry accidentally ate Brown’s good luck onion, by mistake, he christened him Little Onion, and the name stuck. Henry was now the good luck charm along with a bird feather (from a woodpecker, the good lord bird) and other assorted oddities.
I felt as if the story went on and on, repeating the same kinds of events in different places, even over using some phrases. They recurred, exactly, in different parts of the narrative. It was only the undercurrent of humor that kept me reading because it was just too long.
John Brown was dedicated to freeing the Negro, even against his will. He did it awkwardly and unsuccessfully, with many a hare-brained scheme, eventually bringing a great deal of death and destruction upon his friends and family. I wondered, was he mad? Did he hear voices? He thought he was the messenger of G-d, and therefore, was invincible.
Even as he was fighting slavery, his army, which was little more than an unprepared group of supporters, ill-trained and uneducated, was mocked by the author.
Famous names were tossed about like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. The most amusing name of a character was Judge Fuggit. That name, surely a pun, had to be a difficult one to carry. The group of “merry men” was very small and ineffective on their own. They needed the support of the black community, but it was not forthcoming. He was trying hard to free them but they were trying hard to remain safe! He was fighting the war on his own, by and large. Brown’s ragtag army and his slapdash plans were doomed to failure and, indeed, they failed monumentally at Harper’s Ferry.
Brown often quoted random bible phrases. He forgave Onion and others, for whatever they did, interpreting everything as a sign for something else that would bring good-fortune, defying the reality all around him. To call him Pollyanna might be an understatement!
Although the book made John Brown out to be somewhat of a fool, who believed in violence, who had no real plan but flew by the seat of his pants, the fact that he was an abolitionist should have afforded him some honor. He had the right idea, but the wrong approach. Too many of the characters seemed like cartoon drawings of real people, with exaggerated faults, lending to my feeling that this was simply a parody of historic events. The audio book was read well. The speech patterns and accents of the individual characters seemed authentic and aroused the appropriate emotions.
Written by: James McBride, Copyrighted in 2013
Published By: Riverhead Books, (Hardback)
“I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”
The Good Lord Bird is written in three parts Free Deeds (Kansas), Slave Deeds (Missouri), and Legend (Virginia).
Henry was a slave who along with his father (Pa) belonged to the owner (Dutch Henry Sherman) of Dutch Henry’s Tavern, in southern Kansas. Henry’s father worked as a barber at the tavern. An old man took the barber chair who Henry describes as “a stooped, skinny feller, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung, with a nervous twitch in his jaw and a chin full of ragged whiskers.” The old man talked to Henry’s Pa about the Bible which was Pa’s favorite subject since he thought preaching the Gospel was his main job. Soon the subject of slavery came up and the old man made it clear he stood against slavery. The old man thought Henry was a girl, him having curly hair and being clothed in a potato sack. Pa tried to tell him, “Massa, my Henry ain’t a …,” when the old man interrupted him. That’s how Henry became Henrietta. Dutch Henry did not like the way this conversation was going and soon became aware that the old man who had identified himself as Shubel Isaac was in fact John Brown, the abolitionist. A shootout ensued and Henry’s Pa was killed. John Brown rode off with Henry.
Henry considered himself kidnapped by the old man and his thoughts were geared to getting back to the tavern, ASAP. Plus, he had not forgotten the old man had gotten his Pa killed. The old man talked to Henry as if he should be happy to be free. He handed Henry his good luck charm which Henry did not know what it was but assume he had be handed food took a bite out of the small onion. That when Henry/Henrietta got the nick name Onion. They soon caught up with the old man’s army (about fifteen (15) men) which consisted of mostly of his sons. He introduced Onion as a girl and Henry did not speak up otherwise. Onion was put under the care of Fred who was considered slow minded. Fred soon found out the Onion was not a girl, but did not tell.
Henry has many adventures, comparable to a Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn; during his time with the old man in Kansas, but soon finds himself in Pikesville, Missouri. In Pikesville he meets Pie a mulatto prostitute at the Pikesville Hotel. Henry falls for Pie and is ready to take off the nice dress the old man had given him, but, he kept up the charade and remained a girl. The time span from leaving the old man in Kansas until he sees him again in Pikesville is about two (2) years. However, McBride covers this time in six short chapters.
The last part of the story is titled Virginia; however, the old man and Henry do quite a bit of traveling during the next sixteen (16) chapters. They meet Harriett Tubman in Canada and Frederick Douglas in New York. We all know the story ends in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was then part of the state of Virginia. There is historical evidence that John Brown did actually meet with Tubman and Douglas, though we know Henry was not with him.
The story was humorous with Henry escaping trouble many times. Henry had one time to be responsible and missed this when he failed to give John Brown and important message concerning a password and response. This off course may have changed history. I noted that while Henry says he “lived as a colored woman for seventeen years,” the story only covers him from age ten (10) to fourteen (14).
I recommend this book to anyone interested in John Brown or a good story. The book was well written and the author received the 2013 National Book Award for fiction.
FIRST BOOK FOR 2014
Date Started: January 2, 2014 | Date Finished: January 7, 2014
First lines: I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.
Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction | A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year
Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in Kansas who was ‘rescued’ by John Brown, the famed abolitionist. Because of Henry’s features and clothing, he was mistaken for a girl and was later known as ‘Henrietta’. This eventually became 'Onion' after he ate an onion considered by John Brown as a lucky charm. Onion reluctantly traveled with the Old Man (as Onion calls him) and his army, accompanying them in their incursions. To survive he needed to pretend he was a girl. He ends up liking the advantages of being one, such as not being assigned to do heavy tasks and getting pampered by the Old Man and certain people he meets along the way.
The story follows John Brown in the last years of his life through the eyes of Onion. As the story moves along, we find out that the Old Man’s focus was eliminating slavery through insurrection and violent means. John Brown was much feared by people of that time. His character was developed as a strong and unstoppable presence who inspires hate, adoration and fear in people. Some consider him a madman, a fanatic, a zealot or a martyr, but Onion later sees the Old Man in a different light. The Old Man was kind and accepting like a father, but feared and misunderstood like a wild animal. John Brown was a man of unbridled ambition and enthusiasm, who has a liking to praying for significant amounts of time, and referring to bible verses when lecturing his men and justifying his actions and cause. Through the Old Man’s leadership, sheer determination and perhaps even luck, he managed to lead his small army to some successful missions even in unfavorable conditions. However, his plans were often doubted even by his own sons and allies. In their eyes, he is an impractical and idealistic leader, risking all of his men’s lives through unrealistic decisions and plans. Despite this, a reader may find him/herself drawn to John Brown because of his ideals, way of doings things, and most of all his kindness. You sympathize with him because you know that people betrayed him and he was very dedicated to the cause. John Brown's character makes you wonder to what extent can we dedicate ourselves to a purpose. Are we willing to sacrifice everything for what we are fighting for? How much is enough? Onion often intuited that John Brown’s reckless actions, gullibility and susceptibility to bad luck (even in Onion’s presence) was a portent of the events to come.
The book allowed us to enter Onion’s mind and vision not merely to see the world as he sees it but to also identify with him. In Onion, we see a young man who is constantly debating with himself. There are times when he wants to run away from the John Brown’s army and his cause, but there are also times when his conscience confronts him, making him do the right thing, at least according to him. We also see a young man who has the capacity to love truly and care for another person. We are witness to his heart being broken and privy to the thoughts that inspire his decisions. There were times when Onion had to seek ways out of a dilemma, which often resulted in humorous moments that made me laugh out loud. With its brilliant, somewhat sarcastic dialogue, one can't help but find the book funny at times. Towards the end of the book, and inspired by a chance meeting with the Harriet Tubman, Onion has an inner dialogue where we became a witness to his thoughts about identity. Through these realizations, Onion confronts the enormity of the war he was helping to fight while also questioning what it means to be true to one’s self. I especially liked that part when Onion ran back to Harpers Ferry to join John Brown because for him, it was the right thing to do, even if it means risking his life.
At a very deep level, you can sense hope and faith amidst the struggles encountered by the characters. This is not merely a tale of John Brown and his fight against slavery and the struggles he faced. Most importantly though, at least for me, is that it's a story about the quest for identity where Onion tries to piece together the importance of 'being a man' and being true to yourself. It's also about sacrificing one's self for the greater good. At the end of the story, when John Brown was executed, Onion tells us about people singing John Brown's favorite song "Blow Ye Trumpet" inside a church while a Good Lord Bird circled up above it. The Good Lord Bird as John Brown described it before his execution is a bird that flies alone looking for the right tree to gnaw so as to give life to other trees. One would get the idea then that John Brown's fate wasn't necessarily a failure but something that would give life and motivation to future events.
While reading the book, I felt that I was somewhere else. James McBride’s writing has the ability to transport you into a new world and a different time, while engaging you with the story through the characters and events that transpire. Onion is a unique and original character. Surely he will linger in the minds of many a readers after they are done reading. The book makes you reflect on big issues about life and survival while providing insights about slavery, gender, racism and faith. This book propelled me to a world of adventure and suspense, while teaching me a thing or two about American history, but also of the importance of being true to yourself. The Good Lord Bird tells a great story and tells it brilliantly. What a great read!