American history becomes funny in The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Scoot yourself over, Huckleberry Finn! Make room! Here comes Henry Shackleford, aka Henrietta, aka Little Onion, with a tall tale ripped and twisted out of the pages of history that’s like to set your britches afire. Yes, here’s The Good Lord Bird, courtesy of James McBride, a rollicking, tummy-tickling, topsy-turvy account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry — the stupidly quixotic act that helped light the fuse of the Civil War. McBride won a well-deserved National Book Award for this hilarious little novel about one of the seminal events in American history.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

American history has never been so much fun

Henry Shackleford is the lazy, good-for-nothing, twelve-year-old son of a Negro slave who’s a barber and a dwarf to boot. Then Old John Brown and his numerous sons and hangers-on descend on their frontier settlement in Kansas — that’s Bleeding Kansas to you history buffs — and Henry’s life takes a 180-degree turn into the annals of human folly. Henry’s Pa loses his life through a stray shot, Henry finds himself hiding in a dress, and the Old Man kidnaps him and carries him along for the ride into oblivion. Along the way we meet a picturesque assortment of scoundrels, idiots, eccentrics, and heroes, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Nobody gets off easy in McBride’s telling, not even the heroes. American history was never so much fun.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) 434 pages ★★★★★ 

Winner of the National Book Award

About the author

James McBride is a masterful stylist who has managed to capture the linguistic cadences of the Old West and the frenzy of the years just before the Civil War, and to wring every shred of humor out of a genuinely tragic story. Somehow, I think McBride’s account of crazy Old John Brown and the killers and lunatics who surrounded him may actually be closer to the truth than the sober retellings that appear in American history books.

I’ve also reviewed three other novels by James McBride:

You’ll find this book on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.

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