The Good Lord Bird
A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year
“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 and Song Yet Sung 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.
PART I – FREE DEEDS (Kansas)
Meet The Lord
I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.
My Pa was a full-blooded Negro out of Osawatomie, in Kansas Territory, north of Fort Scott, near Lawrence. Pa was a barber by trade, though that never gived him full satisfaction. Preaching the gospel was his main line. Pa didn’t have a regular church , like the type that don’t allow nothing but bingo on Wednesday nights and women setting around making paper dolls cutouts. He saved souls one at a time, cutting hair at Dutch Henry’s Tavern, which was tucked at a crossing on the California Trail that runs along the Kaw River in south Kansas Territory.
Pa ministered mostly to low lifes, four flushers, slave holders, and drunks who came along the Kansas Trail. He weren’t a big man in size, but he dressed big. He favored a top hat, pants that drawed up around his ankles, high collar shirt, and heeled boots. Most of his clothing was junk he found, or items he stole off dead white folks on the prairie who dropped dead of fever or was aired out on account of some dispute or other. His shirt had bullet holes in it the size of quarters. His hat was two sizes too small. His trousers come from two different colored pairs sewn together in the middle where the arse met. His hair was nappy enough to strike a match on. Most women wouldn’t go near him, including my Ma, who closed her eyes in death bringing me to this life. She was said to be gentle, high-yaller woman. “Your Ma was the only woman the world man enough to hear my Holy thoughts,” Pa liked to boast. “For I’m a man of many parts.”
Whatever them parts was, they didn’t add up to much, for all full up and dressed to the nines, complete with boots and three-inch top hat, Pa only come out to about four feet, three inches tall, and quite a bit of that was air.
But what he lacked in size, Pa made up for with his voice. My Pa could outyell with his voice any white man who ever walked God’s green earth bar none. He had a high, thin voice. When he talked, it sounded like he had a Jews Harp stuck down his throat, for he spoke in pops and bangs and such, which meant speaking with him was a two-for-one deal, being that he cleaned your face and spit washed it for you at the same time -- make that three-for- one when you consider his breath. His breath smelled like hog guts and sawdust, for he worked in a slaughterhouse for many years, so most colored folks avoided him generally.
But white folks liked him fine. Many a night I seen my Pa fill up on joy juice and leap atop the bar at Dutch Henry’s snipping his scissors and hollering through the smoke and gin, “The Lord’s coming! He’s a’comin to gnash out your teeth and tear out your hair!” then fling hisself into a crowd of the meanest, low-down, piss-drunk Missouri rebels you ever saw. And while they mostly clubbed him to the floor and kicked out his teeth, them white fellers didn’t no more blame my Pa for flinging hisself at them in the name of the Holy Ghost than if a tornado was to come along and toss him across the room, for the Spirit The Redeemer Who Spilt His Blood was serious business out on the prairie in them days, and your basic white pioneer weren’t no stranger to the notion of hope. Most of em was fresh out of that commodity, having come west on a notion that hadn’t worked out the way it was drawed up anyway, so anything that helped them outta bed to fight Indians and not drop dead from ague and rattlesnakes was a welcome change. It helped too that Pa made some of the best rotgut in Kansas Territory –though he was a preacher, Pa weren’t against a taste or three – and like as not the same gunslingers who tore out his hair and knocked him cold would pick him up afterwards and say “Let’s liquor,” and the whole bunch of em would wander off and howl at the moon drinking Pa’s giddy sauce. Pa was right proud of his friendship with the white race, something he claimed he learned from the Bible. “Son,” he’d say, “always remember the book of Heziekial. 12th chapter, 17th verse: ‘Hold out thy glass to thy thirsty neighbor, Captain Ahab, and let him drinketh his fill.’ ”
I was a grown man before I knowed there weren’t no book of Heziekial in the Bible. Nor was there any Captain Ahab. Fact is, Pa couldn’t read a lick, and only recited Bible verses he heard white folks tell him.
Now it’s true there was a movement in town to hang my Pa, on account of his getting filled with the Holy Ghost and throwing hisself at the flood of westward pioneers who stopped to lay in supplies at Dutch Henry’s– speculators, trappers, children, merchants, Mormons, even white women. Them poor settlers had enough to worry about what with rattlers popping up from the floorboards and breech loaders that fired for nothing and building chimneys the wrong way that choked ‘em to death, without having to fret about a Negro flinging hisself at them in the name of our Great Redeemer Who Wore The Crown. In fact, by the time I was ten years old in 1857, there was open talk in town of blowing Pa’s brains out.
They would’a done it, I think, had not a visitor come that spring and got the job done for ‘em.
Dutch Henry’s sat right near the Missouri border. It served as a kind of post office, courthouse, rumor mill, and gin house for Missouri rebels who come across the Kansas line to drink, throw cards, tell lies, frequent low women, and holler to the moon about niggers taking over the world and the white man’s constitutional rights being throwed in the outhouse by the Yankees and so forth. I paid no attention to that talk, for my aim in them days was to shine shoes while my Pa cut hair and shove as much Johnny cake and ale down my little red lane as possible. But come spring, talk in Dutch’s circled ‘round a certain murderous white scoundrel named Old John Brown, a Yank from back east who’d come to Kansas Territory to stir up trouble with his gang of sons called the Pottowatomie Rifle Company. To hear them tell it, Old John Brown and his murderous sons planned to deaden every man, woman and child on the prairie. Old John Brown stole horses. Old John Brown burned homesteads. Old John Brown raped women and hacked off heads. Old John Brown done this, and Old John Brown done that, and why, by God, by the time they was done with him Old John Brown sounded like the most onerous, murderous, low-down son-of-a-bitch you ever saw, and I resolved that if I ever was to run across him, why, by God, I would do him in myself, just on account of what he done or was gonna do to the good white people I knowed.
Well, not long after I decided them proclamations, an old, tottering Irishman teetered into Dutch Henry’s and sat in Pa’s barber chair. Weren’t nothing special about him. There was a hundred prospecting prairie bums wandering around Kansas Territory in them days looking to get a lift west or rustle cattle. This drummer weren’t nothing special. He was a stooped, skinny fella, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung, with a nervous twitch in his jaw and a chin full of ragged whiskers. His face had so many lines and wrinkles running between his mouth and eyes that if you bundled em up, you could make a canal. His thin lips was pulled back to a permanent frown. His coat, vest, pants, and string tie looked like mice had chewed on every corner of em, and his boots was altogether done in. His toes stuck clean through the toe points. He was a sorry looking package altogether, even by prairie standards, but he was white, so when he set in Pa’s chair for a haircut and a shave, Pa put a bib on him and went to work. As usual Pa worked at the top end and I done the bottom, shining his boots, which in this case was more toes than leather.
After a few minutes, the Irishman glanced around, and seeing as nobody was standing too close, said to Pa quietly, “You a Bible man?”
Well Pa was a lunatic when it come to God, and that perked him right up. He said, “Why boss, I surely is. I knows all kinds of Bible verses.”
The old coot smiled. I can’t say it was a real smile, for his face was so stern it weren’t capable of smiling. But his lips kind of widened out. The mention of the Lord clearly pleased him, and it should have, for he was running on the Lord’s grace right then and there, for that was the murderer Old John Brown hisself, the scourge of Kansas Territory, setting right there in Dutch’s Tavern, with a $1500 reward on his head and half the population in Kansas Territory aiming to put a charge in him.
“Wonderful,” he said. “Tell me. Which books in the Bible do you favor?”
“Oh, I favors em all,” Pa said. “But I mostly like Ezekiel, Ahab, Trotter, and Pontiff the Emperor.”
The Old Man frowned. “I don’t recollect I have read those,” he said, “and I have read the Bible through and through.”
“I don’t know em exact,” Pa said. “But whatever verses you know stranger, why if it would please you to share them, I would be happy to hear em.”
“It would please me indeed, brother,” said the stranger. “Here’s one: Whosoever stoppeth his ear at the cry of the Lord, he also shall cry himself.”
“Hot goodness, that’s a winner!” Pa said, leaping into the air and clapping his boots together. “Tell me another.”
“The Lord puts forth his hand and touches all evil and kills it.”
“That warms my soul!” Pa said, leaping up and clapping his hands. “Gimme more!”
The old coot was rolling now. “Put a Christian in the presence of sin and he will spring at its throat!” he said.
“Free the slave from the tyranny of sin!”the old coot nearly shouted.
“And scatter the sinners as stubble so that the slave shall forever be free!”
Now them two was setting dead center in Dutch Henry’s tavern as they went at it, and there must’ve been ten people milling about within five feet of them, traders, Mormons, Indians, whores -- even the Old John Brown hisself -- who could’ve leaned over to Pa and whispered a word or two that would have saved his life, for the question of slavery had throwed Kansas territory into war. Lawrence was sacked. The governor had fled. There weren’t no law to speak of. Every Yankee settler from Palmyra to Kansas City was getting his duff kicked from front to back by Missouri rough riders. But Pa didn’t know nothing about that. He had never been more than a mile from Dutch’s Tavern. But nobody said a word. And Pa, being a lunatic for the Lord, hopped about clicking his scissors and laughing, “Oh, the Holy Spirit’s a’comin! The blood of Christ! Yes indeedy. Scatter that stubble! Scatter it! I feel like I done met the Lawd!!!”
All around him, the tavern had quieted up.
And just then, Dutch Henry walked into the room.
Dutch Henry Sherman was a German fellow, big in feature, standing 6 hands tall without his boots. He had hands the size of meat cleavers, lips the color of veal, and a rumbling voice. He owned me, Pa, my aunt and uncle, and several Indian squaws which he used for privilege. It weren’t beyond old Dutch to use a white man in that manner too, if he could buy his goods that way. Pa was Dutch’s very first slave, so Pa was privileged. He come and go as he pleased. But at noon every day, Dutch came in to collect his money, which Pa faithfully kept in a cigar box behind the barber’s chair. And as luck would have it, it was noon.
Dutch walked over, reached behind Pa’s barber chair to the cashbox, removed his money, and was about to turn away when he glanced at the old man setting in Pa’s barber chair and saw something he didn’t like.
“You look familiar,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Shubel Morgan,” the Old Man said.
“What you doing round these parts?”
“Looking for work.”
Dutch paused a moment, peering at the old man. He smelled a rat. “I got some wood out back needs chopping,” he said. “I’ll give you fifty cents to chop wood half a day.”
“No thanks,” the old man said.
“How about a dollar then?” Dutch asked. “A dollar is a lot of money.”
“I can’t,” the Old Man grunted. “I’m waiting on the steamer to come down the Kaw.”
“That steamer don’t come for two weeks,” Dutch said.
The Old Man frowned. “I am setting here sharing the Holy Word with a brother Christian if you don’t mind,” he said. “So why don’t do you mind your marbles friend, and go saw your wood your own self, lest the Lord see you as a fat sow and a laggard.”
Dutch carried a Pepperbox in them days. Tight little gun. Got four barrels on it. Nasty close up. He kept it in his front pocket for easy pickings. Not in a holster. Right in his front pocket. He reached in that pocket and drawed it out, and held it, barrel down, all four barrels pointed to the floor, talking to that wrinkled old man with a gun in his hand now.
“Only a white-livered, tit-squeezing Yankee would talk like that,” he said. Several men got up and walked out. But the Old Man sat there, calm as an egg. Sir,” he said to Dutch, “That’s an insult.”
Now I ought to say right here that my sympathies was with The Dutch. He weren’t a bad fella. Fact is, Dutch took good care of me, Pa, my aunt and uncle, and several Indian squaws which he used for privilege, and plenty others. He had two younger brothers William and Drury, and he kept them in chips, plus he sent money back to his maw in Germany, plus fed and clothed all the various squaws and assorted whores his brother William drug in from Mosquite Creek and thereabouts, which was considerable, for William weren’t worth a shit and made friends with everybody in Kansas Territory but his own own wife and children. Not to mention Dutch had a stall barn, several cows and chickens, two mules, two horses, a slaughterhouse, and a tavern. Dutch had a lot on him. He didn’t sleep but two or three hours a night. Fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something like a slave himself.
He backed off the old man a step, still holding that Pepperbox pointed to the floor, and said, “Get down off that chair.”
The barber’s chair was set on a wood pallet. The old man slowly stepped off it. Dutch turned to the bartender and said, “Hand me a Bible,” which the bartender done. Then he stepped up to the old man, holding the Bible in one hand and his Pepperbox in the other.
“I’m gonna make you swear on this Bible that you is for slavery and the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “If you do that, you old bag, you can walk outta here none the worse. But if you’re a lying, blue-bellied Free-Stater, I’mma bust you across the head so hard with this pistol, yellow’ll come out your ears. Place your hand on that,” he said.
Now I was to see quite a bit of Old John Brown in the coming years. And he done some murderous, terrible things. But one thing the Old Man couldn’t do good was fib – especially with his hand on the Bible. He was in a spot. He throwed his hand on the Bible and for the first time, looked downright tight.
“What’s your name?” Dutch said.
“I thought you said it was Shubel Morgan.
“Isaac’s my middle name,” he said.
“How many names you got?”
“How many I need? “
The talk had stirred up an old drunk named Dirk, who was sleep at a corner table nearby. Dirk sat up, squinted across the room and blurted, “Why Dutch, that looks like Old John Brown there.”
When he said that, Dutch’s brothers William and Drury, and a young feller named James Doyle– all three would draw their last breath in another day–got up from their table near the door and drawed their Colts on the Old Man, surrounding him.
“Is that true?” Dutch asked.
“Is what true,” the Old Man said.
“Is you Old Man Brown?”
Did I say I was?”
“So you ain’t him,” Dutch said. He seemed relieved. “Who are you then?”
“I’m the child of my Maker.”
“You too old to be a child. You Old John Brown or not?”
“I’m whoever the Lord wants me to be.”
Dutch throwed the Bible down and pushed that Pepperbox right on the Old Man’s neck and cocked it. “Stop shitting around, you God damned potato head! Old Man Brown. Is you him or not?”
Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death - his or the next man’s – unless the subject of the Lord come up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him. The Old Man plain couldn’t stand it. His face got tight. Next when he spoke, he weren’t talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin.Taut as gauge wire.
“You bite your tongue when you swear about our Maker,” he said coolly, “lest by the Power of His Holy Grace, I be commanded to deliver redemption on His behalf. And then that pistol you holding there won’t be worth a cent. The Lord will lift it out your hand.”
“Cut the jitter and tell me your name, God Dammit.”
“Don’t swear God’s name again, sir.”
“Shit! I’ll swear his cock-dragging God Damn name whenever I God Damn well please! I’ll holler it up a dead hog’s ass and then shove it down your shit-eating Yank throat, ya God damned nigger turned inside out! ”
That roused the Old Man, and quick as you can tell it, he throwed off that barber’s bib and flashed the butt end of a Sharps rifle beneath his coat. He moved with the speed of a rattler, but Dutch already had his pistol barrel at the Old Man’s throat, and he didn’t have to do nothing but drop the hammer on it.
Which he did.
Now that Pepperbox is a fussy pistol. It ain’t dependable like a Colt or a regular repeater. It’s a powder cap gun. It needs to be dry, and all that sweating and swearing must’ve sprouted water on Dutch’s big hands, is the only way I can call it, for when Dutch pulled the go switch, the gun hollered “Kaw!” and misfired. One barrel exploded and peeled sideways. Dutch dropped it and fell to the floor bellowing like a calf, his hand nearly blowed off.
The other three fellers holding their Colts on Old Brown had stepped back momentarily to keep their faces clear of the Old Man’s brains, which they expected to splatter across the room any minute, and now all three found themselves gaping at the hot end of a Sharps rifle, which the old fart coolly drawed out all the way.
“I told you the Lord would draw it out your hand,” he said, “for The King Of Kings eliminates all pesters.” He stuck that Sharps in Dutch’s neck and drawed the hammer back all the way, then looked at them three other fellers, “And that includes you. Lay them pistols down on floor or here goes.”
They done as he said, at which point he turned to the tavern, still holding his rifle and hollered out, “I’m John Brown. Captain of The Pottawatomie Rifle Company. I come with the Lord’s blessing to free every colored man in this territory. Any man who stands against me will eat grape and powder.”
Well there must’ve been half dozen drummers bearing six shooters standing round that room, and nary a man reach for his heater, for the Old Man was cool as smoke and all business. He throwed his eyes about the room and said calmly, “Every Negro in here, those of you that’s hiding, come on out. Follow me. Don’t be afraid, children.”
Well, there was several coloreds in that room, some on errands or tending to their masters, most of em hiding under the table shaking and waiting for the blasting to start, and when he spoke them words, why, they popped up and took off, every single one of em. Out the door they went. You didn’t see nothing but the backs of their heads, hauling ass home.
The Old Man watched them scatter . “They is not yet saved,” he grumbled. But he weren’t finished in the freeing business, for he wheeled around to Pa, who stood there, trembling in his boots, saying “Lawdy, Lawdy…”
This the Old Man took to be some kind of volunteering, for he clapped Pa on the back, pleased as punch.
“Friend,” he said, “You has made a wise choice. You and your tragic octoroon daughter here is blessed for accepting our blessed Redeemer’s purpose for you to live free and clear, and thus not spend the rest of your lives in this den of inequity here with these sinning savages. You is now free. Walk out the back door while I hold my rifle on these heathens, and I will lead you to freedom in the name of the King of Zion!”
Now I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about Kings and heathens and Zions and so forth and with him waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck at the “daughter” section of that speech. True, I wore a potato sack like most colored boys did in them days, and my light skin and curly hair to boot made me the fun of several boys about town, though I evened things out with my fists against those that I could. . But everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was a boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like men. But even those lowly types, who was so braced on joy juice they wouldn’t know a boll weevil from a cotton ball and couldn’t tell one colored from the other knowed the difference between me and a girl I opened my mouth to correct the Old Man on that notion, but right then a wave of high pitched whining seemed to cover the room and I couldn’t holler past it. It was only after a few moments that I realized that that all that bellowing and wailing was coming from my own throat, and I confess here I lost my water.
Pa was panicked. He stood there shaking like shook of corn. “Massa, my Henry ain’t a –
“We’ve no time to rationalize your thoughts of mental dependency, sir!” the Old Man snapped, cutting Pa off, still holding the rifle on the room. “We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just the changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.
“But my s—
“Courage friend!” he said to Pa, “for we has a ram in the bush. Remember Joel first chapter, fourth verse: ‘That which the palmerworm hath left, hath the locust eaten. And that which the locust hath left, hath the canker worm eaten. And that which the canker worm hath left, hath the caterpillar eaten.’”
“What’s that mean?” Pa asked.
“You’ll be eaten alive if you stay here.”
“But my child here ain’t no gi---
“Shush!” said the Old Man. “We can’t tarry. We can talk raising her to The Holy Word later.”
He grabbed my hand, and still holding that Sharps at the ready, backed towards the rear door. I heard horses charging down the back alley. When he got to the door, he released my hand for a moment to fling it open, and as he did, Pa charged him.
At the same time, Dutch lunged for one of the Colts laying on the floor, snatched it up, pointed the hot end at the Old Man, and fired.
The bullet missed the Old Man and struck the edge of the door, sending a sliver of wood about an inch long, out sideways. The sliver jutted out the side of the door like a knife, straight horizontal, about chest high - and Pa runned right into it. Right into his chest it went.
He staggered back, dropped to the floor, and blowed out his spark right there.
By now the clabbering of horses making their way down the alley at hot speed was on us, and the Old Man kicked the door open wide.
Dutch Henry, setting on the floor, hollered, “Nigger thief! You owe me $1,200 dollars!”
“Bill me,” the Old Man said. Then he picked me up with one hand, stepped into the alley, and we was gone.
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