Book review: ‘The Good Lord Bird’ by James McBride

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

What do you remember learning about the abolitionist John Brown? “The Good Lord Bird” is a book of fiction that is more than anything John Brown’s story. At least it tells his story as remembered by Harry “The Onion” Shackleford. Or so we are led to believe by author, James McBride. It is historical fiction. How much is based on fact and how much is fiction is hard to tell.

The part that we know is fiction concerns Harry Shackleford. As a youth, Harry was with his father as he was cutting hair in Dutch’s tavern. Both Harry and his father were slaves of Dutch Henery. The tavern, located on the Missouri border with Kansas, was often frequented with people from the Kansas Territory. Residents of the Kansas Territory were to vote on whether they would be a free or slave state. During the late 1850s, pro-slavers and free-staters were in an armed conflict regarding the question.

One figure in the conflict was the abolitionist John Brown. While he was in the elder Shackleford’s barber’s chair, he was recognized, and an armed conflict erupted. As a result, Brown declared the black slaves free, whether they wanted to be or not, and demanded they go with him. Harry’s father died in the process, and Harry found himself alone in the company of the infamous John Brown. Since Harry was small, had long curly hair and was wearing a flower sack, Brown mistook him for a girl, a part that Shackleford was to play throughout the story. Through a misunderstanding, Harry ate John Brown’s lucky onion and almost immediately acquired the nickname “Onion” and became Brown’s lucky charm. Harry Shackelford, “Onion,” often was hungry, a condition that he had never suffered while a slave.  While he came to appreciate John Brown and his fervor, he wasn’t sure that Brown’s cause was in his best interest.

Accompanied by some of his boys and whatever ragtag “army” would follow him, John Brown undertook his anti-slavery crusade with religious vigor. Brown felt he was an instrument of the Lord on the Lord’s mission, and he often prayed long and hard for guidance. Since his cause was so righteous, Brown supported it by whatever he could steal from the pro-slavers. His reputation exceeded what he actually did because what he did left many people afraid of him.

Onion tells the story of Brown facing the challenges inherent in being in Kansas during the time prior to the vote. He/she describes in some detail the task of seeming to be a girl when he really wasn’t. Harry felt it necessary to maintain the fiction to retain his relationship with John Brown and his sons.

In 1859, Brown hatched the plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., despite the 800-mile distance and the arsenal’s military protection. Believing that the slaves were just waiting for leadership and weapons to revolt, Brown felt they would join his cause. Onion tells the story in some detail and even suggests why Brown didn’t succeed. Onion also describes Brown’s interaction with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. “The Good Lord Bird” may seem like a strange name for the book, but reading the story will help you understand why. And you can always go to other sources if you wish to determine how much is fact.

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