This last Tuesday, we met to discuss The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Since it also was Valentine’s Day, a member had encouraged us to exchange valentines and donated some paper goods and treats as well. I was a little concerned that this might be off-putting to some, but it added a festivity to the discussion that mirrored the humor in a book that was about incredibly serious subjects – slavery, John Brown, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
After I asked if anyone wanted to be the first responder, many chuckled and said they hadn’t liked the book. One of us had struggled to read it, but she was determined to finish it for the group! Another liked the author but didn’t like the subject. She was particularly disturbed by the depiction of Frederick Douglass as a molester—someone she admired but could now never see the same again. Why would the author do that? Still another had disliked the book up until she finished it; then she looked back and thought, I really liked that book. I, too, had struggled with the irreverence, but in the end I felt that the author had done a good job. I had learned, and thought. A lot.
We discussed the meaning of the title. One member had found a reference to a Lord God Bird as an ivory-billed woodpecker. One member thought it was titled as an homage to John Brown, himself a rare bird. Once you let a bird out of a cage . . . Others also supported the idea of Onion as a good luck charm, like the bird’s feathers.
At least a third of us liked the book, although a few were disappointed in the quick ending. They believed it was out of character for Onion to forget to give John Brown the password. We wondered how accurate some of the details were. How did John Brown’s letters read? Did he really sound so uneducated? A white author would not have been able to denigrate Frederick Douglass so.
Why hadn’t the author described more of the horrors of slavery? We expect discussions of slavery to be devastating – perhaps the satirical treatment had more effect, causing us to pay better attention. Why was so much of John Brown’s fighting in Missouri and Kansas rather than “down the river?” Because the Deep South was not ready for persuasion – that’s why the Civil War was inevitable. Was John Brown crazy? Ahead of his time? Someone noted that in hindsight the battle over slavery seems unimaginable and ugly, but while living it, people still loved and laughed, just as Onion told it.
This is my recollection of a pleasant evening with a great group of readers—an experience worth repeating.
- Other works discussed:
- The Color of Water: a black man’s tribute to his white mother (1996) by James McBride
- Miracle at St. Anna (2002) by James McBride
- Night (1960) by Elie Wiesel
- Warmth of Other Suns: the epic story of America’s great migration (2011) by Isabel Wilkerson
- Django Unchained (DVD) (2012) Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino
- Key & Peele (DVD)