I just finished reading The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s fantastic novel that won the 2013 National Book Award. The novel tells the story of John Brown’s 1859 rebellion at Harper’s Ferry through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. John Brown “liberates” the boy by killing his owner, and because the boy has the soft face of a child and is wearing a potato sack, John Brown mistakes him for a girl. For three years “Henrietta,” nicknamed “Onion,” wears a dress and rides alongside John Brown and his shabby army as they wage guerilla war against slavery. Onion’s observations are hilarious and penetrating, as when he says of the part-crazy-part-brilliant-fully-religious John Brown, “Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”
A “Good Lord Bird,” we learn early in the novel, is a red-headed woodpecker, a bird so beautiful that when you see one, you stop and say, “Good Lord.” John Brown believes the feather of a Good Lord Bird to be good luck, a sign of God’s favor, and these feathers appear and disappear throughout the book. Only at the end do we realize that the Good Lord Bird is also a metaphor for John Brown himself, particularly his work to bring an end to slavery. The night before John Brown hangs, Onion reveals himself to John Brown as a boy, not a girl. John Brown tells Onion, “Whatever you is, be it full.” He then gives Onion a final Good Lord Bird feather and says:
“The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ‘em strong. Gives ‘em life. And the circle goes ‘round.”
The book in general, and this quote in particular, makes me grateful for those with vision to see the things that need to die and courage to go to work pecking away at them. I’m thinking of slavery, of course, and its contemporary vestiges in the struggles of black people. But I’m also thinking of militarism and fossil-fuel-ism — both bringing such harm to people and to the environment — and both so insidiously embedded in our economy — there’s a military base or manufacturer in nearly every congressional district in this country, and there are retirees across the globe whose pensions are heavily invested in BP, Exxon, and the like — that to end or even reduce our relationship with either would bring extreme suffering. Of course, the same was true of slavery. It took a bloodbath to end it, and an entire economy had to be reconstructed after its dismantling.
For the Good Lord Birds with vision and courage to lead on these causes, I am grateful. I pray for wisdom to recognize them. And for a feather for good luck.