James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.

Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.

Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).

Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).

Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)

Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.

The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.