Historical novels come in many forms and McBride has gifted us a winner, engaging our every sense and every emotion as we imagine John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that hastened the start of the Civil War. He places the story in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, Onion, a young boy dressed as a girl, who shares his experience and opinions on how that raid came about and why it failed as an insurgency. Living for years with John Brown’s traveling band gave Onion an up close and personal look at the man and his mission.
Funny, propulsive, painful, the words of his main character speak to white and black among us in the same voice, making us laugh before we weep with his insights into the natures of the two races and of the wild Connecticut white man John Brown who tried with every fiber of his being to free black slaves. Much of the story is told like an old-fashioned gin-fueled bull session featuring tall tales, joy juice, and laughter that eventually devolves into fighting and tears.
"[John Brown] traveled variously as "Nelson Hawkins," "Shubel Morgan," or "Mr. Smith," depending on what he could remember, for he often generally forgot his fake names and often asked me to remind him which one he was using. He made various attempts to comb out his beard without success, but with me traveling incog-Negro, posing as a consort, he weren't tricking nobody. I looked raggedy as an old knot rope from weeks on the prairie, and the Captain was famous as bad whiskey. The Pro Slavery passengers cleared out the car when they saw him, and anytime he professed a need for food or drink on the train, why, the other Yankee passengers ponied up whatever food they had for his pleasure. He took these gifts without a blink...That was the ironical thing about the Old Man. He stole more wagons, horses, mules, shovels, knives, guns, and plows than any man I ever knowed, but he never took anything for hisself other than what he used personally. Whatever he stole was for the cause of fighting slavery."The Good Lord Bird, the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker with a thirty-inch wingspan, features in the story as well. Spotting the large bird in the forest is thought to be an exceedingly good omen, though one of John Brown’ many sons unwittingly kills one of the birds—not so good. The feathers of the bird make the rounds of important people in John Brown’s life in the period before the disaster at Harper’s Ferry—being handed off one to another like a talisman to keep them safe. In the end, perhaps, the bird comes to signify the need to consider and keep safe something precious that has no defenses against the evil in the world, something which can be killed at will but that has its place in the circle of life, spreading seeds in fertile soil.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the sometimes raucous nature of the tale, our deep interest in the life and cause of John Brown flickers to life, fanned by gales of laughter. I find myself genuinely interested in how much detail is actually known of the men following Brown in that period, and how closely McBride’s description of the disaster at Harper’s Ferry detailed the truth. And, of course, one cannot help but wonder anew how much violence, or the threat of violence, manages to finally galvanize the populace when good intentions and good words are simply insufficient.
This is a fine addition to the magnificent fiction long list for the National Book Award for 2013. My suggestion is to read them all since those on the list I have read each deserve honors.
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