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The Good Lord Bird Paperback – August 5, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry. Dramatizing Brown’s pursuit of racial freedom and insane belief in his own divine infallibility through the eyes of a child fearful of becoming a man, best-selling McBride (Song Yet Sung, 2008) presents 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 (1967). McBride works Little Onion’s low-down patois to great effect, using the savvy but scared innocent to bring a fresh immediacy to this sobering chapter in American history. --Carol Haggas --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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)


  --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (August 5, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594632782
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594632785
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (780 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,633 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James McBride is the author of the award-winning New York Times bestseller, The Color of Water. A former reporter for The Washington Post and People magazine, McBride holds a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. from Oberlin College.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 160 people found the following review helpful By Schuyler T Wallace VINE VOICE on June 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I sometimes have qualms about reading a new book from an author who has really impressed me with an earlier work. So it was with James McBride who wrote one of my all time favorites, SONG YET SUNG, a novel that resonates deep within me to this day. When I saw his new book, THE GOOD LORD BIRD, being offered on Amazon Vine for review, my anxiety returned because I've been disappointed so many times by authors who have failed to live up to their earlier promise.

I'm happy to say that Mr. McBride presents a book that reaffirms his mastery of historical fiction. BIRD is the story of a young black boy, Henry Shackleford, snatched up by abolitionist John Brown and taken away from his family after the youngster's father is killed in a scuffle. Mistaken for a girl by the crusty old man, Henrietta became his name, although Little Onion was Brown's pet name for him. What follows is Onion's account of Brown's rabid attempt to free all the slaves and Onion's adventures disguised as a girl..

John Brown was a fanatical lunatic beset with God's direction. No one could sway him from his mission, control his madness, or change the way he went through life as an unkempt and disagreeable person. Onion was the exception and, although hunger, cold, and violence plagued the boy through most of his time with Brown, he remained loyal and closely bound to the demented old man for years.

McBride has amazing ability to flesh out his characters through dialogue and verbal depictions. This entire book is written in the dialect of the 1850s, using colloquialisms and expressions of the period and place. It's a joy to read because of the endless asides that either amuse or anger the protagonists, depending on their frame of mind.
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Trudie Barreras VINE VOICE on May 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
That McBride was able to keep his characterization and stylistic integrity focused through over four hundred pages of first-person narrative in a linguistic mode authentic for a slave child in pre-Civil War times testifies to this literary masterpiece. Because of that linguistic authenticity, though, some readers might find this story difficult to deal with. I would caution that those who are likely to be distressed by repeated use of terminology that modern usage has come to consider vulgar, crude and racist would need to shelve their squeamishness in order to fully enjoy the extraordinary power and fascination of this narrative.

On the other hand, those who are willing to accept the validity of McBride's setting will find the descriptions of John Brown's character and the "inspired irrationality" of his abolitionist crusade full of nuance and depth. The narrator character, the boy (cast by Brown as a girl) Henry (Henrietta) Shackleford - called Onion - speaks with complete authenticity and amazing insight. The various sons (and one daughter) of John Brown who appear in the story are portrayed with extraordinary intensity given the relatively minor parts they play. The Negro characters, both slave and free, are represented with similarly sharp delineation; in the case of Frederick Douglass, with more than slightly unflattering perspective.

The plot is complex, and at times I felt that the time-line got somewhat confused. For those like me who are not fully conversant with the history of John Brown's exploits, I think at least a brief recap of dates, perhaps at the beginning of each part or at least as a summary at the end, might have lessened that confusion somewhat. However, I did not let this really distract me from my own intense involvement with and enjoyment of the story. Though it was not really "fast moving" in all parts, there was plenty of action and suspense. McBride has definitely produced a masterpiece, I believe.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By delicateflower152 TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
James McBride is an extremely gifted author who writes unforgettable books. "The Good Lord Bird" now joins "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," as one of my favorite books.

"The Good Lord Bird" is a fictional accounting of John Brown's zealotry and abolitionist activities, as seen through the eyes of a diminutive young man whom Brown "abducts" following a brawl. Henry (Henrietta) Shackleford, "Little Onion" or "Onion" has a unique perspective on the people and events of the era. Mistaken for a girl, he has the opportunity to see things and to hear information that others would not reveal to a young man. In several instances, humorous scenes flow directly from the gender-identification error or from the mistake's discovery. Further, his treatment as a girl mirrors the treatment he might have received as a slave - it is as if he was not present when events happen or issues discussed. He is merely a piece of "property" and is there, but not aware. Onion recognizes this as he states "...I'd gotten used to living a lie - being a girl - ... being a Negro's a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside ...You are just a Negro to the world ..." However, this gender misidentification also results in Onion being put into some dangerous situations. But, he is a survivor; Onion will do whatever is necessary, including continuing the charade, to avoid bloodshed and to live.

Narrated in the first person, the use of regional vernacular and syntax, as well as grammatical idiosyncrasies adds to the authenticity of "The Good Lord Bird". Characters speak as they might when interacting with others of their social class and level of education.
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