Reimagining the Harper's Ferry Revolt
The Good Lord Bird
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/07/2016
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21459
Book review of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird.
Novelist and Jazz saxophonist James McBride earned a National Book Award for his 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, a farcical telling of John Brown's 1859 anti-slavery battle at Harpers Ferry. The author is acclaimed for his earlier work The Color of Water, a tribute to the community that raised him, and a newly published study of the "Godfather of Soul" James Brown.
According to the novel's conceit, a 1966 fire at a historically Black church uncovered notebooks containing "a wild slave narrative" penned by the fictional former slave Henry Shackleford. These imagined notebooks, which comprise the novel's primary text, offer Shackleford's first-person narrative of his rescue from slavery by John Brown and his subsequent adventures in abolitionist warfare.
Shackleford's story begins in 1856, at Dutch Henry's Tavern in Kansas, where he and his father are enslaved. John Brown and his men appear to demand that Dutch release his slaves. When the slaveholders fight back, Shackleford's father is killed and Brown absconds with the boy, whom he mistakes for a girl and dubs "Little Onion" for consuming Brown's good luck charm, a rotten onion.