Good Lord Bird: First-Year Reading Initiative 2014

Good Lord Bird: Common Read 2014


James McBride

Photo by John Seyfried

James McBride is a prize-winning author, journalist, and musician.  He attended Oberlin College from which he received an undergraduate degree in Music Composition and subsequently received a master's degree in Journalism from Columbia University. He is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University.  The Color of Water, McBride's memoir, was published in 1996.  Subsequently, he published two novels, The Miracle of St. Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008). He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical Bo-Bos, co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. In 2012, McBride co-wrote and co-produced the film Red Hook Summer with Spike Lee.  The Good Lord Bird (2014) is his latest novel.  James McBride is also a saxophonist who tours with his six-piece jazz and rhythm and blues band.

Visit James McBride’s website.

By the Book Interview, New York Times Book Review, August 1, 2013

Connect with James McBride on Facebook.

Historical Context

Good Lord Bird is the story of a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857—a time when the region was a center of conflict between anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions. He joins the abolitionist John Brown’s freedom warriors as they traverse the country to gather support for their battle against slavery, culminating in the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. 

Primary Sources

Note:  eResources require IC Netpass for access

 Includes links to pertinent historical documents: Fugitive Slave Act, U.S., September 18, 1850, Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1859, Kansas-Nebraska Act enacted, U.S., May 30, 1854, Dred Scott Decision, 1857, Harpers Ferry Raid, VA, October 16, 1859

North American Slave Narratives
Books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

New York Times (1851-2009)  Note that the term "African American" was not used prior to the 1970's.  The subject terms "Negroes", "Blacks", or even "colored"  will be needed to retrieve articles.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)  see the Center's collection of images documenting the social, political and cultural world of African Americans from slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond, as well as their collection of prints, photographs and other historical documents relating to African and African Diasporan history and cultures from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  Note:  Open Access Resource

African American history in the press, 1851-1899 : from the coming of the Civil War to the rise of Jim Crow as reported and illustrated in selected newspapers of the time

Biographical Sources

American National Biography
Biographical articles that trace a person's life through the sequence of significant events as they occurred from birth to death. Content includes images, contextual or explanatory information, descriptive bibliographies,  hyperlinked cross-references and links to select web sites. Extensive articles on John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.   NOTE: Requires IC Netpass for access - limited to one user at a time.

Video Resources

The Abolitionists.  WGBH Boston, c2013.  Includes segments on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the battle over Kansas, and the raid on Harpers Ferry.

Slavery and the Making of America, WNET New York, c2004

Contact Us

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Lisabeth Chabot

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James McBride on YouTube

Discussion Questions

1. The 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?

​2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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.

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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?

(Penguin Publishing Group c2014)