The Well-Read Historian: The Good Lord Bird By James McBride


By Carla Charter

We all learned about John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid in school. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, however does more than educate its reader about John Brown and the events leading up to the raid. It allows us to see these events through the eyes of Onion, an African American child who Brown has taken with him after a shooting.

From Brown’s religious rantings to the Osawatomie Raid in Kansas to visits East with Frederick Douglass, McBride uses the novel to bring you along with John Brown and his family and as a result the reader is given the opportunity to see history come to life.

The book gives you a glimpse into Brown himself, as well. Through McBride’s writing you become aware of Brown’s frenetic thinking and lack of planning which led to one failed attack after another.  Despite this though you clearly see how he clung to his almost fanatical faith and unwavering belief that it was he who was chosen to lead the campaign to abolish slavery.  Toward the end of the novel readers see his faith transform in a bitter sweet acceptance of his fate, believing he had accomplished his part of the mission in the larger abolition movement. That there was nothing more to be done for him.

The book more than all else though, turns the formal portraits of Brown we all remember from high school and colors them. It turns these black and white photos into a complex human being in your imagination, with the invariable conflicting aspects of his personality which we recognize as the same aspects that makes us all human.   I first chose to read this book knowing it would soon be the basis of a movie. Now that I have read the book it makes me even more eager to see the movie.

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