At one point, Henry (also known as Henrietta and Onion), the ex-slave narrator of James McBride's historical novel The Good Lord Bird, looks around at an abolitionist meeting and wryly observes, "It made me a bit sad, truth be to tell it, to watch them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren't hardly every any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse" (232). Henry's observation, which he has occasion to make more than once, reflects more generally on the state of affairs when it comes to historical fiction about abolitionism in general and John Brown, this novel's subject, in particular. Unlike earlier historical novels about Brown, like Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter (1999) and Bruce Olds' Raising Holy Hell (1995), The Good Lord Bird avoids solemn apocalypticism: the affectionate but frequently exasperated Henry, narrating from his old age, dwells on Brown's habit of interminable prayers ("them mutterings had a way of putting a man to sleep on his feet" ) along with his often ridiculous plans of action, and makes no bones about his own youthful self-interest when faced with danger ("But my arse was on the line, and while it's a small arse, it do cover my backside and thus I am fond of it" ). But although the narrator's memories are often tinted with a bleak comedy, the comedy is shot through with moments of deep and discomfiting seriousness.
In its form, the novel both echoes the classic historical novel, in which Big Name Real Hero's story is told from the point of view of Small Name Fictional Protagonist, as well as the picaresque; in fact, Henry often comes across as the acerbic, realistic Sancho Panza to John Brown's sublimely romantic Don Quixote. However, Henry's relatively passive status in the narrative--beginning with his unlooked-for liberation and soon moving on to his accidental transformation into "Henrietta"--also reflects sardonically on the sidelining of African-American voices (and, for that matter, Native American voices) in historical novels such as this. Brown's project, as Henry has more than one occasion to observe, frequently runs roughshod not only over what the slaves and freedmen themselves might want, but also over their' own plans for escape and/or rebellion; when Henry himself encounters Coachman and Rail Man, who both work with the Underground Railroad, he is utterly incapable of deciphering their code, just as he cannot decipher the code of Harriet Tubman's shawl. Although the slaves regard Brown as a "saint" (284), they speak a language of liberation that Brown does not hear and, therefore, cannot teach to Henry. Even though Brown's children teach Henry to read, a classic trope of liberation in abolitionist and slave narratives, they paradoxically leave him illiterate in a very different sense. "What's the word?" asks an increasingly puzzled Coachman, who thinks he is dealing with a potential rider on the Railroad. "I can't think of none," replies an equally puzzled Henry (282). Henry's inability to speak this alternate language is counterpointed by the uselessness of his literacy; in fact, when he promises to help Sibonia, a slave planning insurrection, with reading and writing, he never follows through.
Henry's difficulties with action, up to and including passing on a significant code to Brown's men, are echoed in one of the novel's key refrains: being "like a man." At one level, the problem is obvious, since Henry's performance as "Henrietta" or "Little Onion" keeps him removed from the action and engaged in women's work. And yet, this excuse proves inadequate. For much of the novel, being "like a man" means dying well, a meaning that Henry keeps trying to evade. Sibonia "could stand up like a man and take it, even if she was a woman" (173), Henry thinks to himself...before finding an equivalent act of bravery in declaring his love for the much older Pie. To be "like a man" turns out to be a difficult proposition for nearly all of the novel's characters, for it implies a total dedication to a cause that transcends the demands of mere self. "Be a man," Sibonia urges a crying slave as they go to their deaths, and "[h]e got hisself together and climbed up the stairs" (168). Manliness, which has nothing to do with biological manhood (aside from John Brown, the two "manliest" characters in the novel are Sibonia and the terrifying Harriet Tubman), transcends the instinctive urge to survive, to perpetuate the body and its needs. But to be manly is not to be a rugged individualist. "I has done what the Lord has asked me to do in the little time I had," John Brown tells Henry at the end. "That was my purpose" (414). Manliness, that is, means a vocation to righteousness that subordinates all other longings, whether for food or for family. This vocation, however, is beyond all but a handful of men and women. Henry, indeed, ultimately rejects this definition of manhood in favor of something more life-affirming: "How can I die like a man if I ain't lived like one yet?" (403) If it's impossible to have the death of a hero, better to have a life reasonably well-lived. Few are called to be saints.
That being said, if The Good Lord Bird sympathizes with those who would rather live than die, it has little enthusiasm for figures like Frederick Douglass--represented here as an arrogant, drunken lecher--who in the end is a "man of words and speeches" (330) who could never "fight a real war" (332). The novel's scorching take-down of Douglass (which will probably strike many readers as far more shocking than its Quixotic Brown) attacks the armchair politician, enamored of his (or her) own creature comforts, whose calls for sacrifice ultimately does not include himself. Douglass inhabits the world of genteel political symbolism, which keeps the speaker's body carefully out of the line of fire. In stark contrast are the novel's three most powerful figures, Sibonia, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown himself, all of whom embody the terrifyingly radical potenial of faith. This is not so much dogmatic Christianity as it is a full-hearted belief that, as both Sidonia and Brown insist, "God is no respecter of persons" (415); the novel's saints may sometimes sound like relativists ("A body can be whatever they want to be in this world," Tubman tells Henry; "It ain't no business of mine" ), but this is actually moral absolutism, a belief in the perfect righteousness of the Lord. It's not Tubman's "business" because the business in question belongs only to God. This devout belief in divine justice motivates all of the novel's true heroes. Sibonia, who twice declares "I am the woman" when charged with inciting rebellion (162, 163), inverts 2 Samuel 12:7: far from being the object of an accusation of sin ("Thou art the man"), Sibonia claims for herself the mantle of a right action that is "sin" only in the eyes of the slaveholders. As the local minister (whose epiphany when faced with Sibonia anticipates Henry's when faced with Brown at the end) admits, "I acknowledged that He would do justice. That those deemed the worst by us might be regarded the best by Him. I prayed for God to forgive Sibby, and if we was wrong, to forgive the whites" (165-66). Although Sibonia's sacrifice has no immediate positive effect--she and several other slaves are executed--she converts the minister to her cause, a local success that invokes classic martyr narratives. Henry finds Sibonia echoed in Harriet Tubman, who dryly observes of her husband that "[h]e wanted a wife and not a soldier. He became something like a woman hisself [...] Couidn't stand being a man" (251). Like Sibonia and Brown, and unlike Douglass, Tubman disdains right talking in favor of right acting: "God don't need your prayers. He needs your action" (250). No Christian pacifism here--as Sibonia's embrace of violence and Tubman's soldier metaphor suggests, these saints are members of the Church militant who bring not peace, but a sword. And here, too, is Brown's success in failure, as a martyr to a glorious cause. At the end, he explains the title's meaning to Henry: the "Good Lord Bird" is a seeker who "flies alone," in quest of "that dead tree that's taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor," and when the bird finds it, he destroys it (415). Brown's and Sibonia's martyrdoms sit alongside Tubman's successes as single-minded attacks on the "dead tree" of slavery; their quests, which require them to "sacrifice my love"  (as Sibonia warns the minister), make them other to the world of joys desired by someone like Henry.