The Good Lord Bird

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The Good Lord Bird
Inside an uneven red rectangular box is a straw hat (top), the book's name, and the author's name, in black font
Cover to The Good Lord Bird
AuthorJames McBride
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical fiction, comic
PublishedRiverhead Books
Awards2013 National Book Award for Fiction

The Good Lord Bird is a 2013 novel by James McBride about a slave who unites with John Brown in Brown's abolitionist mission. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013 and received positive to mixed reviews from critics.


The memoirs of Henry Shackleford, a slave in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas era, are discovered in a Delaware church. Henry, nicknamed "Little Onion" for eating a particularly rancid onion, accidentally encounters abolitionist John Brown in a tavern. Brown mistakes Henry for a girl and gives him a dress to wear; Shackleford wears a dress for much of the novel. The two join together, and Henry narrates his encounters with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and the events at John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. The book is narrated in the first person through Henry.


The novel received positive to mixed reviews from critics, with several reviewers comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Héctor Tobar called the novel "laugh-out-loud funny and filled with many wonderfully bizarre images", but noted the lack of humanity in comparison to Huckleberry Finn or Middle Passage (1990). Tobar went on to say "those looking for verisimilitude or gravitas in their historical fiction might want to avoid The Good Lord Bird."[1] Laura Miller of Salon drew comparisons between the novel and Huckleberry Finn, specifically comparing the moral awakening of Finn to the journey of Henry; writer Christine Brunkhorst notes how Onion and Finn both encounter "drunken rebels, brutal slave owners, spineless men, clairvoyant women, crooked judges and some brave and principled people."[2][3] In a review for the San Francisco Chronicle, novelist Amity Gaige praised McBride's "reimagining" of Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and added that he "[managed] to novelize real historical events without dreary prostrations to the act".[4]

The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013.[5] National Book Award judges called McBride "a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain."[6] McBride did not prepare an acceptance speech, as he thought he would not win, and was described as "clearly stunned" upon receiving the award.[7]


Ethan Hawke and Jason Blum are adapting the book for a television show that will premiere in 2020 on Showtime.[8][9][10]


  1. ^ Tobar, Héctor (August 30, 2013). "'The Good Lord Bird' is a twisted take on an abolitionist's story". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company.
  2. ^ Miller, Laura (November 14, 2013). ""The Good Lord Bird": A new take on Huck Finn".
  3. ^ Brunkhorst, Christine (August 17, 2013). "Review: "The Good Lord Bird", by James McBride". Star Tribune. The Star Tribune Company.
  4. ^ Gaige, Amity (August 23, 2013). "'The Good Lord Bird,' by James McBride". San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Corporation.
  5. ^ Bosman, Julie (November 20, 2013). "'Good Lord Bird' Is Surprise Winner for National Book Award in Fiction". The New York Times. The New York Times Company.
  6. ^ Minzesheimer, Bob (November 20, 2013). "James McBride wins National Book Award for fiction". USA Today. Gannett Company.
  7. ^ Dugdale, John (November 21, 2013). "National Book Awards leave winner lost for words". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group.
  8. ^ Lang, Brent (June 11, 2018). "Ethan Hawke, Jason Blum Adapting 'The Good Lord Bird' for TV". Variety.
  9. ^ "Academy Award(R) Nominee Ethan Hawke to Executive Produce and Star in Showtime(R) Limited Series "Good Lord Bird"". The Futon Critic. March 11, 2019.
  10. ^ "Showtime Taps Tony Winner Daveed Diggs and Wyatt Russell in "The Good Lord Bird"". The Futon Critic. August 2, 2019.
Preceded by
The Round House
Louise Erdrich
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
Phil Klay