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Literature / The Good Lord Bird

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"If you stand for the Lord, the Lord will
stand for you!"

"Whatever he believed, he believed. Didn't matter if it was true or not."
Henry "Onion" Shackleford, regarding John Brown

The Good Lord Bird is a 2013 Historical Fiction novel authored by James McBride as a retelling of the life and death of radical abolitionist John Brown, which is at once darkly comedic, dramatic and epic. The story concerns itself with the young former slave Henry Shackleford, nicknamed "Onion" and mistaken for a woman after being freed by John Brown and his militia and becoming friends with him. From Bleeding Kansas to the doomed Harper's Ferry raid, Little Onion gets to witness firsthand the might and madness of John Brown while discovering his own identity as America itself changes with time.

In 2020 the novel was faithfully adapted into a seven-episode miniseries by Blumhouse Productions for Showtime, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Henry "Onion" Shackleford. James McBride acted as an executive producer.

The Good Lord Bird and its series adaptation provide examples of:

  • As the Good Book Says...: John Brown, true to his historical self, is always quoting biblical verses no matter the situation (and often prompting others to recite them to him).
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Brown has vivid "visions from God" and oscilates between fatherly warmth and growling rage (at anything connected to slavery). Something's clearly not all right with his head.
  • Animal Motifs: The story is titled after the Good Lord Bird, a name for the (currently thought to be extinct as of 2020) ivory-billed woodpecker, birds Brown and his men believe to hold a sacred significance of God's wisdom. The birds and their feathers (which are said to grant a man who carries them divine guidance) reoccur in the narrative.
  • Arc Words: "What a beautiful country", spoken by John Brown a few times (including as he's about to be executed). There's always a underlying irony that Brown and his allies seem to essentially be at open war with the United States as it existed in their time, but still find it is (or perhaps could be) "a beautiful country".
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: John Brown's recruiting standards are extremely lax.
  • Berserk Button: Brown is a gentle (if kooky and eccentric) man...unless you support slavery in any fashion. Then he'll probably lop off your head with a broadsword on the spot.
  • Bittersweet Ending: As expected, John Brown ultimately gets hanged for treason, but his death provides the spark that lit the fuse for the end of institutional slavery in the US. Onion also survives as one of the few survivors of his militia.
  • The Casanova: Frederick Douglass gets along quite nicely with the ladies. One of Brown's soldiers, Sam Cooke, also has an affinity for the fairer sex (which proves to be a problem when his philandering gets in the way of Brown's plans).
  • Church Militant: John Brown is a very proud Christian, and his path of faith is one laced with gunpowder against those who would support slavery. This also goes for his army, who share his views by and large (though with less fervor most times).
  • Crazy Sane: Ultimately where the narrative lands regarding John Brown. Towards the end of the narrative, a slaver calls him a madman, and Brown simply points out he's the sanest man he'll ever meet: it's all those who stand by and support slavery who have gone mad. In short, Brown's erratic, bombastic and may be hallucinating, but as Onion points out, his judgement of society is perhaps the sanest one in the entire narrative.
  • Death Seeker: It's hinted John Brown may have been perfectly aware his mission was doomed, but he knew that dying he would do more for the cause than living (something he says in his last conversation with Onion and said in real life).
  • Dramedy: The story mixes some levity mined from the quirks and oddities of the characters (namely John Brown) with the utmost seriousness of the fight against slavery.
  • The Dreaded: Everyone on the side of slavery is utterly terrified of John Brown.
  • Foil: Sibonia, to John Brown. They're two of the characters with the deepest understanding of the evils of slaverynote , and the scale of the upheaval that will be needed to eradicate it; both are portrayed as Crazy Sane as a result. The difference is, Sibonia's knowledge comes firsthand, and her views are presented as more realistic.
    • Both of them make a Heroic Sacrifice as a result of their opposition to slavery, although Brown does so with the intent of inspiring more fighters for freedom, while Sibonia tries to limit the backlash against other slaves, accepting her death stoically and refusing to give up anyone else. We never even find out for sure whether the alleged slave revolt was real in the first place, or whether Pikesville's slaveholders murdered her based on rumor and paranoia.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Even if you're unaware of the life and death of John Brown, the very first scene of the miniseries is John Brown walking to the gallows as Onion looks on.
    • On the other hand, the survival of Owen Brown and O.P. Anderson isn't in much doubt, as they later fought on the Union side of the American Civil War.
  • Freudian Trio: While they don't share any actual moments all together on-screen, this is the dynamic between Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Harriet Tubman. Douglass is the collected intellectual fighting against slavery through speeches and debates (The Superego), John Brown is a fiery hellstorm of a man fighting against slavery with all manner of violence (The Id) and Tubman seems to be trying to make sure both approaches aid her Underground Railroad (The Ego).
  • Friend to All Living Things: Despite his utmost viciousness to any pro-slavery human being within stabbing/shooting distance, Brown is shown as very gentle towards animals and is often seen caressing random wild animals.
  • Hearing Voices: Brown seems to hear God's voice speaking to him from time to time.
  • Historical Domain Character: Aside form John Brown and his assorted bunch, Frederick Douglass is a supporting character, Harriet Tubman shows up in one scene and future Confederate general Jeb Stuart is a recurring antagonist.
  • Large Ham: John Brown is not a subtle man in any regard. Ethan Hawke's portrayal oscillates between a snarling and screaming at the drop of a hat.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The visions from God John Brown receives seem to have some startling accuracy, but it's left ambiguous enough that it might have just been dumb luck.
  • Missing Mom: Brown's wife is dead, leaving him to care for their children. Her Bible remains a heirloom for them.
  • Mission from God: Brown firmly believes he has been divinely ordered to eradicate slavery.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The last we hear of Douglass, he seems quite sad that Brown's plan failed in part because he didn't support him.
  • My Death Is Only The Beginning: Brown plans for his death to be the spark to ignite the end of slavery in the US. He succeeds.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Sibonia the slave, at first glance, appears to be an annoying but tragic character, who has simply cracked under the pressure of a life in chains. Don't believe it for a second.
  • Parental Abandonment: Onion's father gets killed in his first scene. His mother was apparently already dead.
  • Parental Substitute: Brown grows to be something of a weird father figure for Onion (as the story begins with his father's death).
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Brown is a hugely badass anti-slavery crusader who's also a fervent Christian. The same applies to many of his followers on a lesser scale, plus Harriet Tubman for a female example.
  • Salt and Pepper: Douglass and Brown have the dynamic in reverse: the African-American Douglass is much calmer and collected, trying to defeat slavery in the arena of public speech, while the white John Brown is a raving guerilla fighter trying to actively incite rebellion. They actually discuss the irony of this for a bit when they meet.
  • Sidelong Glance Biopic: It is essentially the life of John Brown (from the mid-1850s up to his death) as told by the perspective of (fictional) runaway slave Little Onion.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Brown, his followers, the abolitionists generally and former slaves who join them all believe this naturally. As a result, he and his army go to extreme lengths fighting against it.
  • Slave Liberation: Brown and his followers plan to seize the Harper's Ferry US armory, arm the slaves in the nearby areas with the guns then spark a huge slave revolt which will eradicate slavery in general. They fail, but it adds fuel to the coming civil war, ending slavery in the US.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: "The General" Harriet Tubman shows up for exactly one scene, but the weight she has on the narrative is colossal.
  • Tragic Hero: Brown's unflinching faith in his own ideals ultimately render him into a societal pariah, cost him his men, several of his sons and ultimately his own life.
  • Terror Hero: Brown fights for the righteous end of slavery, but he does so by some very bloody and gruesome methods that leave his enemies in utter panic.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "All of this is true. Most of it happened."
  • Warts and All: The idea here is to portray all historical figures with no hagiography. There's Brown himself portrayed as an unstable madman (if an undeniably righteous one), but the other prominent example is the focus given to Douglass's gigantic ego and womanizing ways.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Brown is willing to use violence, including killing unarmed prisoners, in his crusade to eradicate slavery (it helps that his victims are its proponents).
  • The Western: One of the Southern-set variation dealing with the evils of slavery, á la Django Unchained.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Onion puts on a dress as a disguise early on, and gets mistaken for a girl after that by Brown, necessitating that he continue it. Finally he tries to confess what happened, but Brown stops him (apparently already knowing it) and says this doesn't matter, only the person Onion is.
  • Wild Hair: Brown's hair (and beard) gets progressively more unkempt and scraggly as the story goes on. By the end you can barely see his face.
  • Wretched Hive: Pikesville, Missouri, is a microcosm of every nasty frontier town in every gritty Western you've ever watched. It seems to be one of the only locations in the story that's entirely fictional, which is probably just as well.