The Good Lord Bird: A Novel

Hardcover | August 20, 2013

byJames McBride

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Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Liev Schreiber and Jaden Smith

A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year

Winner of the Morning News Tournament of Champions

“A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride.” –cover review of The New York Times Book Review

“Outrageously entertaining.” –USA Today
“James McBride delivers another tour de force” –Essence
“So imaginative, you’ll race to the finish.” –NPR.org
“Wildly entertaining.”—4-star People lead review
"A boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel.” – Washington Post
 
From the bestselling author of The Color of Water, Song Yet Sung, and Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography, comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.


Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

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Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction Soon to be a major motion picture starring Liev Schreiber and Jaden Smith A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year Winner of the Morning News Tournament of Champions “A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride.” –cover review of...

James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, the #1 bestselling American classic The Color of Water, and the bestsellers Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which was turned into a film by Spike Lee. He is also the author of Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography. M...

other books by James McBride

The Color Of Water 10th Anniversary Edition
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Format:HardcoverDimensions:432 pages, 9.25 × 6.25 × 1.38 inPublished:August 20, 2013Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1594486344

ISBN - 13:9781594486340

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INTRODUCTIONHenry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry's master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town-with Brown, who believes he's a girl.Over the ensuing months, Henry-whom Brown nicknames Little Onion-conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859-one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride's meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.ABOUT JAMES MCBRIDEJames McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the New York Times bestseller,The Color of Water. His second book, Miracle at St. Anna, was optioned for film in 2007 by Black Butterfly Productions with noted American filmmaker Spike Lee directing and co-producing. McBride has written for the Washington Post, People, the Boston Globe, Essence, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. He is a graduate of Oberlin College. He was awarded a master's in journalism from New York's Columbia University at the age of twenty-two. McBride holds several honorary doctorates and is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. McBride lives in Pennsylvania and New York.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe novel opens with a newspaper article about the discovery of an old document-"a wild slave narrative." Did having this context from the outset adjust your expectations of what would come? Would you have read the novel differently if this article hadn't been included?When they first meet, the Old Man misidentifies Henry as a girl, forcing "Little Onion" to disguise himself as a girl for much of the story. How does Little Onion's attitude toward this disguised identity change throughout the novel? How does he use it to his advantage? When does it become a hindrance?Discuss the significance of the title. Fred tells Little Onion that a Good Lord Bird is "so pretty that when man sees it, he says, 'Good Lord,'" and that a feather from this bird will "bring you understanding that'll last your whole life." What role do the Good Lord Bird and its feathers play in John Brown's story? In Little Onion's? Why is the title appropriate for the novel?In what ways is this a narrative about Onion? In what ways it is a narrative about larger issues? How do these two aspects of the novel interact?How familiar were you with John Brown and the events at Harpers Ferry before reading the book? Has the fictional retelling changed your perceptions of John Brown as he relates to American history?The novel includes several historical figures-John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. Does the blending of actual, historical events and figures with the author's fictional reimagining of them make you rethink history? Explain why or why not.Consider the use of dialect in the novel. The narrator, Little Onion, speaks with a very particular dialect; the Old Man, who constantly refers to the Bible, speaks with a different cadence and rhythm entirely. Little Onion says of the Old Man: "He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, 'thees' and 'thous' and 'takest' and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed . . . but with a bigger purpose, 'cause he knowed more words." What roles do speech, dialect, and elocution play in this story?The Old Man attaches significance to several unlikely objects; among his collection of "good-luck baubles" are the feather of the Good Lord Bird and the dried-up old onion that Henry eats, earning him his nickname. Why does a man like John Brown accumulate such objects? Why does he call them both "good-luck charms" and "the devil's work"? Do you own any objects to which you attribute good or bad luck or attach other superstitious beliefs?In the abstract, a funny story about slavery might not seem possible. How does the author bring humor to a subject not typically written about in this tone? Is he successful? What does humor allow us to contemplate about history that we might not have thought otherwise?Since the publication of this book, repeated comparisons have been made to Mark Twain. Do you see this similarity? If so, where? Does James McBride's writing style remind you of any other authors or books? In what ways is this a "classic" American story, and it what ways does it feel more contemporary or otherwise different?Loyalty is a major theme in the book. Political beliefs are a matter of life and death. Even Little Onion feels conflicted about whether to stick by John Brown's side or flee from him. Where do the major characters' loyalties lie, with regard to each other and with regard to the cause of abolition? Are the allegiance lines as cut-and-dried as you might expect?The measures that John Brown and his posse take in The Good Lord Bird could be seen today as those of revolutionaries, even terrorists. What would your response to Brown and his actions have been if you had lived during that tumultuous era of American history?

Editorial Reviews

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for FictionWinner 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)