James McBride’s ‘The Good Lord Bird’ renders comical, human portraits of famous fighters against slavery

With his latest publication, The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, New York Times bestselling author of The Color of Water, offers a comedic portrait of John Brown, the controversial abolitionist whose radical fight to end slavery culminated in the raid on Harpers Ferry, signifying the tipping point in the nation’s march to civil war. Even though the novel isn’t a page-turner in the traditional sense, it definitely has it’s own unique rhythm due in part to its snappy, twangy dialogue.

Through its own music, McBride’s novel jumps and bumps along in the staccato fashion of a banjo plucking out a quadrille in the Blue Mountains, telling a true-but-tall tale of history through an eccentric take on its characters.

Quirky take on history

We first meet our 12-year-old protagonist, the fair-skinned, tawny-haired Henry Shackleford – an homage to another pubescent moral relativist, Huckleberry Finn – in Kansas territory where his enslaved father serves as barber to a “tavern of lowlifes.”

After a kerfuffle with a mysterious, bible-verse-slinging stranger who comes in for a haircut, their master, Dutch, ends up inadvertently killing Henry’s father with a bullet that was meant for the outspoken stranger, John Brown.

After his father’s death, Brown takes it upon himself to rescue Henry from bondage, mistaking him for a girl in the fray, on account of his fair curls and the shapeless potato sack he wears. Henry, who Brown comes to call “Onion” – a befitting reference to the complex layers of his identity and the concepts of identity with which the novel is preoccupied – goes along with the ruse to survive, donning a dress and bonnet as he embarks on a journey that takes him from the outposts of Kansas to the bourgeois lecture halls of Boston.

Comical coming of age

Along the way, embroiled in Brown’s countless, ill-fated plans, Onion meets pillars of the abolitionist movement, experiences the first pangs of puppy love, and takes part in the planning of the raid on Harpers Ferry where Brown makes his last stand.

McBride’s tale is full of funny and well-imagined scenarios; however, it is clear that he’s done his research, and is faithful to the historic events, details, and actors that comprise Brown’s biography and the realities of the antebellum landscape.

What is unique is the perspective from which the story is told. In Onion, who in his later years becomes known as Mr. Whopper for his tall tales, we have a plucky, not altogether trustworthy, narrator modeled after the long tradition of the trickster archetype — one of many tropes McBride holds to an unforgiving light for closer examination.

Onion’s snappy aphorisms  – at one point when describing Brown’s crazed appearance he says that he “seemed like his peanut had poked out the shell all the way” – render irreverent portraits of historical figures that otherwise remain lifeless in our imaginations, like the stone monuments that often depict them.

His characterizations bring them to life and gives us access to them as human, portraying them as fallible and funny, making them more real to us now.

Signifying on Slavery

Onion’s “signifying” epitomizes McBride’s approach to this dark chapter in American history. His sense of humor gives historic events, places and people that have calcified through dry depictions in text books more dimension, snatching them down from their sanctified mounts and giving them fallible flesh.