On Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men on a raid of the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va. His intent: to arm slaves and end slavery. Severely outnumbered, Brown and his men were defeated within 36 hours by Robert E. Lee and the U.S. Marines. Brown was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Was he a crazy zealot or a martyr for a just cause? No slave who fought with Brown survived to shed light on the man whose armed insurrections electrified the nation and led to the Civil War — that is, until James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird.” In McBride’s third novel, 12-year-old Henry Shackleford, whom Brown frees during one of his raids, travels with the elusive outlaw for three years, survives Harper’s Ferry, and lives to a ripe old age; “The Good Lord Bird” is his story.
And it is a good one. The young Henry (nicknamed “Onion”) is as precocious as Huck Finn as he narrates his journey through our turbulent country. “Fistfights was common out west on the prairie,” he recalls. “Between cheap whiskey, land claim disputes, the red man fighting for their land, and low women, your basic western settler was prone to a good dustup at any time. But nothing stirred up a row better than the slavery question.”
As any child might be, Onion is ambivalent about his liberation; he’s gone from three meals a day and a warm bed to the occasional biscuit and the company of ruffians, particularly the Bible-spewing Brown, a “stooped, skinny feller, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung.” Onion survives by disguising himself as a girl, and his life with these militant abolitionists takes him around the pre-Civil War United States; like Huck Finn traveling down river with Jim, Onion encounters drunken rebels, brutal slave owners, spineless men, clairvoyant women, crooked judges and some brave and principled people. Onion chronicles Brown’s attacks at Osawatomie and Pottawatomie, his meetings with Hugh Forbes, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and his final, ill-fated raid in Virginia. Throughout his travels, Onion’s estimation of Brown changes from a man whose “cheese had slid off his biscuit” to a man for whom leading slaves to freedom “weren’t no lunacy.”
The novel had me running to the Internet to flesh out my skeletal knowledge of John Brown, which is a good purpose of a book, but not the only one. As in “Huck Finn,” this novel comes in through the back door of history, telling you something you might not know by putting you in the heat of the action, which is in the shoes of a kid who disguises himself in order to survive an ugly and brutal time in our nation’s history. It is a compelling story and an important one, told in a voice that is fresh and apolitical.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.