The Good Lord Bird is a tour de force–the recreation of the last days of the abolitionist John Brown told through the eyes of a young slave who accompanied Brown on his last campaigns. No wonder it won the National Book Award for 2013. But The Good Lord Bird is much more than historical fiction. It serves as a treatise on race, gender, religion, as well as worthy and lost causes. What makes this novel work so well is the honesty of young Henry whose nickname Onion spared him from having to answer to a girl’s name despite the fact that he pretended to be one. Onion tells the reader “like it is,” including his own many shortcomings.
Onion/McBride’s portrait of Brown, while certainly an exaggeration, nevertheless gets to the heart of the matter––Brown’s willingness to die in the service of his belief that God wanted him to put an end to slavery. McBride’s portrait of Frederick Douglas, on the other hand, may disturb some. It isn’t favorable, but in that sense, it continues a feud which has gone on now for 150 years and is likely to last another 150. Rarely has history been mined so creatively to retell an important story in a manner that allows us to reflect on contemporary society. I’m adding McBride’s other novels to my to-read list.