The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird is a deceptive novel. Upon first finishing it, I felt a deep sense of apathy. I kept thinking things like why don’t I care about any of these characters? Why am I so unmoved by the story? It depicts an important moment in American history, a direct precursor to the Civil War, so why can’t I get excited about it? But now I find those are incomplete evaluations of the book. In general, yes, I didn’t find myself moved by the characters, I didn’t find myself impressed by the action.

But I was also fascinated by the race and gender dynamics of the book. I found myself, over a few days after completing the book, thinking about why only black people know Onion was a boy. Did John Brown know all along too? I found myself thinking about religious extremism, in the case of someone like Brown who invoked religion at every corner and used it to justify violence. About the depiction of Frederick Douglass, that did not match how I’ve thought about or learned to think about Douglass until now. About whether Onion was in fact an unreliable narrator, remembering his life at an old age.

The Good Lord Bird is undeniably a smart book. It is packed full of beautiful, poetic, picaresque writing. It brings to bear a black man’s perspective on a white man’s attempt at ending slavery, a sorely missing perspective from most of literature. It is all these things, but it failed to grab me emotionally. And that is something, in my opinion, that great art needs to accomplish, to differentiate itself from an academic exercise.