In 1942, on his way to reaching the age of 111, Henry “Onion” Shackleford tells a friend of his adventures in the 1850s with John Brown and how he survived the raid on Harpers Ferry.
James McBride’s loosely historical novel “The Good Lord Bird” begins three years before the 1859 raid that helped ignite the Civil War. Brown liberates the 12-year-old slave Onion during a saloon fight and makes him a kind of mascot for his gang of frontier abolitionists.
McBride follows the broad outline of Brown’s haphazard campaign, from the massacre of Kansas farmers through skirmishes with pro-slavery civilians and soldiers, fundraising in Boston, strategizing with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to the ill-fated assault on the armory at Harpers Ferry. In a strange interlude Onion is away from Brown for a while and living in a whorehouse.
McBride, 55, was a journalist and professional musician before he began writing books looking at the black-white racial divide in different eras. His best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” (1996) described growing up as one of 12 children of a white mother and black father. He followed with a novel about black soldiers in World War II Italy.
His second novel, “Song Yet Sung,” dealt with the hunters who tracked runaways in a slave breakout in 1850s Maryland. The new book returns to that time, but where “Song” was a tense, fear-filled story, “Bird” often recalls the broad humor and irony of Mark Twain. The dedication suggests it’s a “whopper.”
It’s certainly a different spin on the dour John Brown, whom Onion is observing at several removes: as a child, as a black and as a slave. With a skeptical eye served by a sharp tongue, his comments can seem like one long whispered aside from the stage of history.
Listen to him complain at how Brown’s liberating him has brought more suffering than he knew before: “I weren’t never hungry as a slave, nor was never whipped scandalous. Fact is, only time I was hungry and eating out of garbage barrels and sleeping out in the cold was when I was free with him.”
Some of Onion’s funniest moments stem from Brown’s endless praying -- while food gets cold, men nod off, enemies flee: “That Old John Brown could work the Lord into just about any aspect of his comings and goings in life, including using the privy.”
Many observations ring historically true (my source is Tony Horwitz’s highly readable “‘Midnight Rising,” 2011). Onion testifies to Brown’s physical courage and endurance, but also his money troubles, poor planning and a string of hapless ventures. “He’d failed at just ’bout everything,” Onion says.
Most telling: “Old John Brown didn’t know exactly what he was gonna do from sunup to sundown on the slavery question.”
It might have been Brown’s fuzziness on the question that persuaded McBride to strand Onion in a Pikesville, Missouri, whorehouse, where the boy sees a harsher version of slavery than he has known. The episode also lets McBride introduce a few colorful characters outside the male confines of Brown’s raiders.
One is the house’s top prostitute, Pie, whom Onion first encounters in “a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas.”
Once the story returns to Brown’s plans for liberating slaves through the armory raid, McBride gives Onion a part to play that doesn’t jibe with history yet works well in narrative terms. It’s a reminder, as is Brown especially, that history doesn’t supply the best actor for every role or the best facts for a good yarn.
“The Good Lord Bird” is published by Riverhead (417 pages, $27.95). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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