Book by: James McBride
Review by: Jessamy Hoffmann
Honors Program
University of Connecticut



This book is a relatively quick and easy read, entertaining, but at times thought-provoking. It is a fictionalized account of life with John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, told from the decidedly unique perspective of Onion, who is mistaken for a girl when he’s “rescued” by John Brown and decides that it is safer to maintain the fiction. While it did provide inspiration to learn more about the actual facts of Brown’s life, and therefore could serve as a springboard for a student to engage with history, from a non-academic, pleasure reader’s perspective, the theory of “what could have been” or “what may have been” was also intriguing. Would the entire raid have gone differently if the train’s porter had been patient one minute longer? The author has a playful mastery of language, using a turn of phrase to great effectiveness and often humor, as highlighted by his description of a man’s death, “The man fell and stopped paying taxes right there.” (McBride, 2013, p. 389)


At their first meeting, Brown gives Onion a feather from a Good Lord Bird. Brown’s son, Frederick, describes the bird by saying “It’s so pretty that when man sees it, he says, ‘Good Lord.’” (McBride, 2013, p. 30) He continues by saying that he can catch any bird, “But that one there…that’s an angel. They say a feather from a Good Lord Bird’ll bring you understanding that’ll last your whole life.” (McBride, 2013, p. 31) The reader learns along with Onion that understanding has layers and takes plenty of time to acquire. Onion’s audience becomes aware that one’s perspective is used to define right and wrong and that good is not entirely good and evil is not entirely evil. Frederick Douglass, an icon of black rights, is referred to as “the great man” (McBride, 2013, p. 224) in the book while being portrayed as a cowardly womanizer. While in New England fund-raising for the cause among abolitionists, Onion remarks that he kept his mouth shut because “There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person“ and that he believes Yankees think Frederick Douglass is the only one of those. (McBride, 2013, p. 234)


As an advisor I believe the book could be used as an effective tool to teach students about leadership, ethics, and legacy. The Good Lord Bird is a type of woodpecker, described by John Brown as a loner, searching for bad trees to take down so that the tree’s compost can make other trees strong. The imagery of the Good Lord Bird highlights the grayness of the lives and actions of the Browns. The bird marks Frederick Brown’s grave, serves as a calling card for Owen Brown (another of Brown’s sons), and is spotted on the day of John Brown’s death because there is an understanding at stake here that is deeper than whether or not these were good men. At the root of everything was the cause, the elimination of slavery. For better or worse the issue was addressed. Just as one realizes that history is black and white only in the elementary school classroom, one also realizes that legacies are nuanced. 

The Good Lord Bird. (2013). Book by James McBride. Review by Jessamy Hoffmann. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 417 pp. $27.95. ISBN 978-1-59448-634-0


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