Book note: The Good Lord Bird

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

What do we think of John Brown? He was a terrorist. That can’t be denied. Like murderous fanatics of today, he killed people in cold blood because he thought it was God’s will.  

But in McBride’s portrayal, he never killed anyone out of hatred or a desire for revenge. Yes, he was a terrorist, but he was right.

If I had lived in that era, I think I would have been an abolitionist, but I would have condemned John Brown because I would have feared his actions would lead to a bloody civil war—which, in fact, happened.  

With the hindsight of history, I see things differently. Compromise on slavery was impossible. The peaceful abolition of slavery was impossible.  It was true, as Abraham Lincoln said, that every drop of blood exacted by the lash had to be paid for by a drop of blood exacted by the sword.

I hope that peaceful resolution of the life-and-death issues of today is not impossible.

The Good Lord Bird was adapted as a TV miniseries (which I didn’t see) on Showtime in 2020.


Years ago I read and admired James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1995). It is a fine book, in a style very different from the The Good Lord Bird. 

His mother was a Jewish woman who married a black man, called herself “light-skinned,” helped found a Baptist church in Harlem and put 12 children through college.

When McBride asked his mother whether he was black or white, she said, “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody.” When he asked her what color God is, she said, “God is the color of water.”

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2 Responses to “Book note: The Good Lord Bird”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    I hope to find this book. I like counter arguments of historical events that this one apparently does.


  2. Hamk Stone Says:

    Thanks for this, Phil!

    I never thought to wonder what color God is. I wonder why that never came up? The color of water seems like a nice answer!


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