‘The Good Lord Bird’: James McBride’s Acclaimed Novel Becomes a Gripping Historical Drama Series

William Gray/Showtime

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the stage was set for that conflagration with other skirmishes stemming from the same issues that eventually caused war to erupt, particularly slavery. Some of those events took place during the “Bleeding Kansas” era from 1854 to the start of the war in 1861, when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions regularly clashed along the border of Kansas Territory and Missouri.

The combustible nature of that era in those areas and the country as a whole was effectively captured and dramatized in James McBride’s 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award for Fiction. The acclaimed work is now adapted as a limited, seven-part Showtime series of the same name, debuting Sunday, Oct. 4.

Ethan Hawke, who is an executive producer the series with McBride, stars as famed abolitionist John Brown. Brown was, of course, a real-life figure and is a major factor in this tale, but The Good Lord Bird is told from the point of view of a fictional enslaved boy named Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Onion becomes part of Brown’s motley crew of abolitionist soldiers in Bleeding Kansas, traveling with the band of freedom fighters across the country and eventually participating in the famous 1859 raid on the federal depot at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

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The Good Lord Bird features Lodge 49 star Wyatt Russell in a recurring role as Brown’s nemesis, the future Confederate general Jeb Stuart, while familiar faces guest-starring in the series in more minor roles include David Morse, Steve Zahn, Orlando Jones and Ellar Coltrane, who received rave reviews costarring with Hawke in the 2014 drama Boyhood.

William Gray/Showtime

Prominent among the guest stars in this series is Tony winner Daveed Diggs — who originated the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in a different sort of historical re-creation, the hit musical Hamilton — who portrays Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a legendary social reformer.

“I think one of the wild things about [The Good Lord Bird],” Diggs told us, “is that it’s also James McBride’s take on Frederick Douglass, which is pretty particular and really fun and, I think, really brilliant because it is Frederick Douglass through the eyes of the protagonist, Onion, who is a 13-year-old cross-dressing slave boy.

“And it is that lens through which to view one of the greatest orators of any time, and somebody who was a megastar. In his time, Frederick Douglass was the biggest star, the most-photographed person of the century. He was a star in the way that we don’t really think of him as. I think now it’s hard for us to imagine that, because there are no YouTube videos of him. And so, that was really, really fun.”

The Good Lord Bird, Showtime, Sundays at 9pm ET beginning Oct. 4