The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird

by James McBride

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Overview

Soon to be a Showtime limited series starring Ethan Hawke

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction  
 
A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year
 
 
From the bestselling author of The Color of Water, Song Yet Sung, Five-Carat Soul, and Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography, comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594632785
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 9,769
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama, James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, the #1 bestselling American classic The Color of Water, and the bestsellers Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which was turned into a film by Spike Lee. He is also the author of Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography. McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Hometown:

Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Date of Birth:

1957

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Education:

Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction
Winner of the Morning News Tournament of Books

Praise for The Good Lord Bird

"A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride…a brilliant romp of a novel…McBride—with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir, The Color of Water, an instant classic—pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page." —The New York Times Book Review

"You may know the story of John Brown's unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, but author James McBride's retelling of the events leading up to it is so imaginative, you'll race to the finish."—NPR

"A boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel by James McBride...There is something deeply humane in this [story], something akin to the work of Homer or Mark Twain. McBride’s Little Onion — a sparkling narrator who is sure to win new life on the silver screen — leads us through history’s dark corridors, suggesting that “truths” may actually lie elsewhere." —The Washington Post
 
“Wildly entertaining…From the author of The Color of Water, a rollicking saga about one of America’s earliest abolitionists.” —People (4 star review; “People Pick”)

"McBride delivers another tour de force...A fascinating mix of history and mystery."—Essence

"A story that's difficult to put down."—Ebony

“Outrageously entertaining…The Good Lord Bird rockets toward its inevitable and, yes, knee-slapping conclusion. Never has mayhem been this much of a humdinger.” —USA Today

“An impressively deep comedy...It’s a view of the antebellum world refreshingly free of pieties, and full of questions about the capacity of human beings to act on their sense of right and wrong, about why the world is the way it is, and what any one of us can do to make it better. It’s the rare comic novel that delves so deep.” —Salon
 
“Both breezy and sharp, a rare combination outside of Twain. You should absolutely read it.” —Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine

"A superbly written novel....McBride...transcends history and makes it come alive."—The Chicago Tribune

"Absorbing and darkly funny."—The San Francisco Chronicle

"An irrepressibly fun read."—The Seattle Times
 
“As in Huck Finn, this novel comes in through the back door of history, telling you something you might not know by putting you in the heat of the action…It is a compelling story and an important one, told in a voice that is fresh and apolitical.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Exhilarating… McBride makes what could be a confusing tale clear and creates suspense even in a story whose end is well-known. Beneath the humor lies sympathy for Brown and all those whose lives were caught up with his.” —Columbus Dispatch

"Outrageously funny, sad... McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“A sizzling historical novel that is an evocative escapade and a provocative pastiche of Larry McMurtry’s salty western satires and William Styron’s seminal insurrection masterpiece, The Confessions of Nat Turner.” —Booklist (starred review)

“[The Good Lord Bird] recalls the broad humor and irony of Mark Twain.” —Bloomberg News
 

"The Good Lord Bird is just so brilliant. It had everything I want in a novel and left me feeling both transported and transformed—the last book I remember loving so thoroughly was The Orphan Master’s Son."—John Green (in judging the Morning News Tournament of Books)

 
"[McBride's] effervescent young narrator is pitch-perfect and wholly original."—Geraldine Brooks (in judging the Morning News Tournament of Books)
 
"For years we have waited for a response to William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. So long, in fact, that we forgot we were waiting. The Good Lord Bird sings like a bird set free, with a voice that ought to join Huck Finn, the narrators of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, and Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao as a voice which is here to tell us who we are in music so lovely we almost forget it was born in terrible pain. It’s an alarmingly beautiful book."—John Freeman (in judging the Morning News Tournament of Books)

 

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry's master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town-with Brown, who believes he's a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry-whom Brown nicknames Little Onion-conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859-one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride's meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.


ABOUT JAMES MCBRIDE

James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the New York Times bestseller,The Color of Water. His second book, Miracle at St. Anna, was optioned for film in 2007 by Black Butterfly Productions with noted American filmmaker Spike Lee directing and co-producing. McBride has written for the Washington Post, People, the Boston Globe, Essence, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. He is a graduate of Oberlin College. He was awarded a master's in journalism from New York's Columbia University at the age of twenty-two. McBride holds several honorary doctorates and is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. McBride lives in Pennsylvania and New York.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • The novel opens with a newspaper article about the discovery of an old document-"a wild slave narrative." Did having this context from the outset adjust your expectations of what would come? Would you have read the novel differently if this article hadn't been included?
  • When they first meet, the Old Man misidentifies Henry as a girl, forcing "Little Onion" to disguise himself as a girl for much of the story. How does Little Onion's attitude toward this disguised identity change throughout the novel? How does he use it to his advantage? When does it become a hindrance?
  • Discuss the significance of the title. Fred tells Little Onion that a Good Lord Bird is "so pretty that when man sees it, he says, 'Good Lord,'" and that a feather from this bird will "bring you understanding that'll last your whole life." What role do the Good Lord Bird and its feathers play in John Brown's story? In Little Onion's? Why is the title appropriate for the novel?
  • In what ways is this a narrative about Onion? In what ways it is a narrative about larger issues? How do these two aspects of the novel interact?
  • How familiar were you with John Brown and the events at Harpers Ferry before reading the book? Has the fictional retelling changed your perceptions of John Brown as he relates to American history?
  • The novel includes several historical figures-John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. Does the blending of actual, historical events and figures with the author's fictional reimagining of them make you rethink history? Explain why or why not.
  • Consider the use of dialect in the novel. The narrator, Little Onion, speaks with a very particular dialect; the Old Man, who constantly refers to the Bible, speaks with a different cadence and rhythm entirely. Little Onion says of the Old Man: "He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, 'thees' and 'thous' and 'takest' and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed . . . but with a bigger purpose, 'cause he knowed more words." What roles do speech, dialect, and elocution play in this story?
  • The Old Man attaches significance to several unlikely objects; among his collection of "good-luck baubles" are the feather of the Good Lord Bird and the dried-up old onion that Henry eats, earning him his nickname. Why does a man like John Brown accumulate such objects? Why does he call them both "good-luck charms" and "the devil's work"? Do you own any objects to which you attribute good or bad luck or attach other superstitious beliefs?
  • In the abstract, a funny story about slavery might not seem possible. How does the author bring humor to a subject not typically written about in this tone? Is he successful? What does humor allow us to contemplate about history that we might not have thought otherwise?
  • Since the publication of this book, repeated comparisons have been made to Mark Twain. Do you see this similarity? If so, where? Does James McBride's writing style remind you of any other authors or books? In what ways is this a "classic" American story, and it what ways does it feel more contemporary or otherwise different?
  • Loyalty is a major theme in the book. Political beliefs are a matter of life and death. Even Little Onion feels conflicted about whether to stick by John Brown's side or flee from him. Where do the major characters' loyalties lie, with regard to each other and with regard to the cause of abolition? Are the allegiance lines as cut-and-dried as you might expect?
  • The measures that John Brown and his posse take in The Good Lord Bird could be seen today as those of revolutionaries, even terrorists. What would your response to Brown and his actions have been if you had lived during that tumultuous era of American history?

Interviews

"Conflicts Are Magnets": Barnes & Noble Review Interview with James McBride

The Good Lord Bird is James McBride's fourth book, his third novel, and one that takes on a characteristically ambitious topic: the violent faction of the pre–Civil War abolition movement, led into the Kansas territory by the charismatic wielder of a patchwork gospel, John Brown. The novel follows young slave Henry Shackleford, whisked away from his owners by the already-notorious Brown's renegade group. Posing as a girl to avoid trouble, Henry, lovingly dubbed "Little Onion" by his captors, travels with Brown on his quixotic mission to end slavery. He struggles all the while with his feminine disguise; growing into a lustful young man presents a great many agonizing and ultimately comic challenges. After meeting a bevy of colorful historical characters including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Onion reluctantly accompanies Brown on his real-life, ill-fated 1859 raid on Maryland's Harpers Ferry, in the doomed hope of igniting a nationwide slave rebellion.

McBride, author of the internationally bestselling memoir The Color of Water, wears many hats: novelist, journalist, writing teacher at New York University, tenor saxophonist, and a signature porkpie that he keeps firmly cocked on his head at nearly all times — I had been a student of Mr. McBride's in 2009, in a New York University class called "Point of View." We interviewed legends of jazz drumming, took a field trip to Philadelphia to eat a deli sandwich, and chewed tobacco, all in the name of generating raw, honest writing. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about his new novel, lessons from class, and our shared fascination with the connection between making music and books, held over coffee and donuts in his small, spare Hell's Kitchen apartment, a utilitarian space he uses only for writing. — Sarah Ungerleider

The Barnes & Noble Review: The Good Lord Bird is set during the pre–Civil War era in America. You've written two other novels, Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which are respectively set during the Civil War and World War II. What is it that attracts you to writing historical novels?

James McBride: I like stories where normal people are in abnormal situations, and that's what appeals to me about history. I also think you can find elements of romance in history as a novelist. There's nothing romantic about our time, to me, and if there is, other writers have already beaten that horse to death. I'd like to write novels about modern life, but that's not where the story comes from, in my opinion. I write stories that are already in the air, and I think it's important to have the correct listening device to tune in to that frequency.

BNR: This novel is written in an African-American vernacular from the 1860s. Was telling the story in that voice a challenge? What was your research process?

JM: I have cousins in North Carolina who talk in that old Southern style of "yakking," if you will. All the black men in my life when I was a boy talked that way, and I love that kind of talk. It's that kind of direct, non-educated attack on the English language, a unique approach to describing events and people, and I've always found it to be very charming and funny.

In writing vernacular, you have to be a ventriloquist, where the audience watches the puppet's lips, with the challenge that no one should be able to see your lips — the writer's — move. As the writer, you have to make it seem like you aren't working that hard to sound a particular way, and after a while it's almost like you are just following what the character is saying. The writer ends up transcribing.

In researching the vernacular, I read slave narratives, first-person accounts of blacks in the reconstruction era in the early 1900s, anything I could get my hands on that deals with Southern vernacular. And as you can probably imagine, I read all the time. I must have read thirty books for this novel.

BNR: The real-life abolitionist John Brown is a central character in your novel. You portray him as a flat-out fanatical man who believes that he is doing God's work in killing "Pro- Slavers" and freeing slaves. What about Brown intrigued you, as opposed to other famous abolitionists of that time period?

JM: John Brown was the abolitionist to end all abolitionists. People thought he was crazy. He was like John Coltrane playing free jazz, exhausting all possibilities in his approach to harmony and improvisation. Brown had exhausted all possibilities in trying to create an environment where African Americans were considered equal in America, and so he just went to the next level. A lot of people during that time talked about the abolition of slavery, but he actually did something about it. In order for him to work toward freeing the slaves, he had to treat African Americans as equals, and that was not possible for a lot of white people at that time. But Brown broke through that barrier, and that made him singularly unique.

Also, he was really funny, because he prayed all the time, and this was a guy who chopped people's heads off in the name of God. It's bizarre, but if the story is played right, it's very funny. The Good Lord Bird is meant to be entertaining as well as enlightening. Who wants to be bored by some droll commentary on race? That's not my game. You have to find a character who can really speak to such an important issue in a way that's funny and poignant and true, and this is what made John Brown the prime candidate for my novel.

BNR: Narrator Henry, a.k.a. Little Onion, is a young runaway slave who poses as a girl in Brown's group of rogue abolitionists to survive. Throughout the novel, he struggles with his identity, not only as a boy, but also as an African American with very light skin (some characters in the novel aren't sure whether he's black or a "white girl with a dirty face"). What are you interested in sharing with readers regarding the story of his passage out of childhood?

JM: Little Onion's search for identity is very important to the story, because it's a universal struggle. That search for identity is actually a lifelong process, but Little Onion has to accelerate that search and deal with it instantly because his life depends on him posing as a girl. It's that conflict between the inner and outer journey that makes him so compelling. Conflicts are the magnets that hold the story together. In this case, Little Onion's sense of identity as an African American and as a boy is being challenged tremendously by a series of outer events that are shoving him in all different directions.

BNR: Henry not only feels conflicted about his identity, but also about his notions of good and evil, truth and falsity. He falls in love with a slave named Pie, who ends up giving away an insurrection plot that culminates with the execution of her fellow slaves. She does this to curry favor with a judge who may have promised her freedom. Your novel portrays the moral complexities of that time period, showing wrongdoing and betrayal among slaves as well as among their owners. How did you arrive at this theme, as opposed to sticking with a more straightforward one of victim-versus-oppressor?

JM: Everyone was a victim in slavery — the owners and the slaves. Now the slaves were more victimized, but injustice makes victims of us all. In order for the slaves to be realistic, they had to be presented as fully dimensional characters.

It can be hard to swallow, but some slaves were content with being slaves, just as there were others who were not content. There were slaves like Pie, who were willing to step on the necks of their fellow slaves to gain freedom. The complexities of slave life are delicious and easy pickings for a writer. If you look deeper than the surface history, you'll see that there is a complexity of inner relationships that's at work behind a particular act of brutality. My job is to let readers see that.

BNR: Let's talk about your portrayal of Frederick Douglass, which does not cast him as a saint. In the story, when John Brown and Henry pay a visit to Douglass to discuss abolitionist tactics, Douglass becomes drunk and tries to seduce twelve-year-old Henry while he is dressed as a girl.

JM: Frederick Douglass was just ripe for caricature. The man had a black wife and a white mistress. I'm tired of the old "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" black hero of the slavery period. I respect and admire Douglass, but I make fun of a lot of people in this book. I imagine that the Frederick Douglass chapter will draw some heat from some African-American historians, going on about how inaccurate and unfair my portrayal is. Let the historians give the accurate portrait if they want. I'm not saying Frederick Douglass would actually do something like try to seduce a child, but it is true that many a great civil rights or political leader has unhinged his trousers at the wrong time.

BNR: Harriet Tubman also makes an appearance in The Good Lord Bird, but unlike Douglass, she's portrayed in a solemn light.

JM: I think Harriet Tubman is one of the great unsung American heroes — she's like John Brown in that regard. I felt like I could blow some smoke at Frederick Douglass, because he was a wordsmith: a man who could fight with speeches but not with deeds. Harriet Tubman was different; she was the one with guts, talent, and an enormous intelligence. However, not many people know very much about her. I've been fascinated with Tubman ever since I wrote Song Yet Sung, which was based in part on her life. She was a woman of guile and guts and extreme courage. A true Jesse James. However, because Tubman was a woman and because she was black, she's always presented in these eighth- grade textbooks in a rather silly, sentimental tone. She deserves better.

BNR: In our class, you were well known for your advice on the writing life. "Write in an uncomfortable chair" was one that I've always kept in mind. Do you have any other tactics to help you write?

JM: I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning. It doesn't matter what time I went to bed, I will always get up at that hour to write. Even if I'm just sitting at my desk playing with paper clips, should an idea hit, by god, I'm ready for it. I do sit in an uncomfortable chair, although my Spartan surroundings here in this apartment are actually a lot nicer than they have been in the past. I've been writing in this crummy little room for the past eighteen years, and it's served me well. When I'm writing, I fail a lot; I just keep failing until I fail better. The Good Lord Bird took at least five years to write.

BNR: You also said quite frequently that "bitterness is the enemy of great writing."

JM: If you're bitter about something, you'll never learn anything from it. And really, what do you have to be bitter about? Unless you can't afford to eat, you are getting a clean-sided life. In The Good Lord Bird, Little Onion has a lot of stuff to be bitter about, but he's not at all. What happens with bitterness is that it makes you someone who knows everything, and someone who knows everything cannot write from a perspective of innocence and discovery. This is crucial as a writer.

I'm game for anything that helps me see the wonder of life. I want to continually be surprised, and you can't experience this when you're bitter. That kind of attitude is ashes for a young writer. It's like dropping acid onto the page, and then when you try and put the pen to the page, there's nothing to write on — the page is gone.

BNR: In being both a musician and a writer, do you find any parallels between the creative processes? This is something I think about a lot as a fellow tenor saxophonist.

JM: To give an example: as you know, on the saxophone there are two common ways to play a B Flat. You play with your first finger on your right hand or the first finger on your left hand mashed over two keys, and depending on the structure of the musical passages you decide which fingering to use. In writing, it's the same thing in the sense that when you find yourself in a certain situation in your story, you need a certain level of technical ability to get out of that situation. It's that dexterity blended with a creative impulse that makes it possible for you to remove yourself from whatever literary corner you put yourself into, and music is the same way. You already know you have to move your fingers in a certain way so that you can play a B Flat smoothly and efficiently. Once you have that technical ability, you can add the flavor to it.

BNR: You insisted that as students we handwrite our essays with pencil, on yellow legal pads. Why is this your preferred writing medium and why do you use it in your class?

JM: When you handwrite, you edit. The first thirty to fifty pages of all my books are handwritten, and I do that because if you work on a computer, you end up going forwards and backwards and end up inserting entire chapters. Writing by hand forces you to edit before you edit — the act of moving a pen or a pencil across the page is a form of editing that cuts the fat from your work. It makes you a lean writer, and you really have to be lean in our time. Nowadays, writing is just covered in fat and icing. Everyone is a blogger writing in the first person, twittering about going to the store — I wouldn't do that if my life depended on it.

So handwriting, especially today, is precious, and forces you to edit your work immediately. It moves you to clean your characters and content, it pushes your story forward, and it makes you identify what is important right away. Typing at a computer is like going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. It's too much. Stay lean.

August 29, 2013

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