The Good Lord Bird is devilish entertainment. It’s a heady ride through a tumultuous time in American history that somehow manages the mean trick of making you laugh even as it deals with heavyweight subject matter. Its unique perspective is largely thanks to its focus on John Brown, the real life abolitionist who helped spark the Civil War with an ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. But McBride’s meanest feat is the voice he gives us to tell his story: a young black boy forced to disguise himself as a girl for several years when John Brown takes him in and makes him an unwitting participant in the fight against slavery.
One problem I frequently have with historical fiction novels is that the author applies a modern perspective to the subject matter. In order to clearly get the reader on the protagonist’s side, heroes and villains neatly take opposing sides according to how we currently understand the issue. McBride, thankfully, instead embraces the complications inherent to the topic of slavery as his characters would know it. The question of right and wrong isn’t made black and white, it’s portrayed in myriad shades of grey (just like in real life). Even Onion, our narrator, struggles with his own feelings about the institution of slavery. In many ways, it is all he has known–and his short life experience has taught him to simply look out for himself before worrying about the greater good.
That Onion is forced to disguise himself as a girl provides McBride the basis of a sharply observed theme: that slavery, and indeed any institution or policy that dehumanizes a people, forces them to live a lie. No one sees them for who they are, so their life becomes a series of misdirections in order to get by. “Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside.” The impact of this forced lifestyle is far-reaching. If you can’t be yourself, how can you know yourself? How can you love someone, or be loved in turn?
Even with all this potentially weighty subject matter, McBride manages to energetically propel his narrative along with a surprising degree of humor. At heart, The Good Lord Bird is a farce, which only serves to make it all the more subversive.
My big complaint here is that, to me, McBride didn’t quite stick the landing. I don’t want to stray into spoiler territory, so suffice to say that I just didn’t believe what he posits caused the downfall of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. OK, slight spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. McBride lays the blame at Onion’s feet for forgetting to relay a key piece of information to Brown and his army. And I have a hard time believing that Onion would remember to provide all the other information except for the one detail that was most important of all. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and that ‘took me out of the novel,’ if you will.
Despite that caveat, The Good Lord Bird is a yarn you won’t soon forget.