James McBride’s latest novel is a rare bird and not just because it is named after a rare woodpecker. ‘The Good Lord Bird’ is an irreverent homage to abolitionist John Brown’s journey to the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry, as told by 12-year-old Henry Shackleford. When Brown is visiting a tavern in Kansas Territory, things get quickly out of hand. Henry’s father is killed and Brown frees the young boy, but not before assuming he is a girl. Henry becomes Henrietta and Henrietta become Onion (for eating John Brown’s good luck onion, the man had about a million good luck charms). The novel tells of the adventures and encounters, including their relationship with Frederick Douglass, the old man and Onion face on their way to changing the course of American history (John Brown's raid on Hapers Ferry is an important impetus to the American Civil War).
‘The Good Lord Bird’ is a historically rich, inventive tale of race and gender identity. It’s also a comedy. It is the tale of a possibly unhinged zealot, a teenager assuming a new identity, prominent abolition figures, brutal slave owners, drunken rebels, a tattered band of followers, and even a few upstanding citizens. It’s clever, funny, and irreverent, but it’s never disrespectful. It offers a fresh perspective on a mysterious historical figure, one who is assumed to have either been a fanatic or a madman – and quite possibly both. In this story, he is a hero.
James McBride’s newest novel is beautiful and, for lack of a better word, feisty in unexpected ways. Through Henry’s ambivalent view and distinct voice, a fresh, funny light is shed on a dark period in history. I like to read for pleasure. I also have the tendency to mock those who claim to only read important, canonical books, despite the fact that I also read those books too. I’m just not snobbish about it. This is one of those rare books that will satisfy both parties. It is an excellent, important book that also happens to be fun to read. 4.5/5.