James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is a fictionalized account of John Brown’s life and actions in the 3-4 years preceding the raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. The narrator is one Henry Shackleford, aka the Onion. When we meet him, he is just a small boy (maybe 10 — he isn’t sure of his own age) in the rough and tumble Kansas territory. He and his father Gus are slaves to a saloon owner named Dutch until the day John Brown’s posse comes to town to free the slaves. Gus ends up dead and Henry, now dubbed Onion and dressed in girl’s clothing, becomes John Brown’s good luck charm and rides with his men for the next few years, surviving the events at Harper’s Ferry as an eye witness to what happened in the armory there.
This is a novel with as many layers as an onion. While it is a piece of historical fiction about John Brown and his famous raid, it is also a coming of age story of Onion, an exposition on relations between blacks and whites, and an examination of how blacks related to each other under slavery. McBride is brutally honest in his depiction of these people and their relationships, and no one comes out looking completely heroic.
McBride’s characters are the driving power behind this story. He tackles some formidable historical figures while creating memorable fictional characters. Besides John Brown, we meet Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Jeb Stuart. McBride isn’t afraid to show the less dignified aspects of Brown and Douglass in particular. The scene where a drunk Douglass makes awkward passes at Onion is funny but somewhat scandalous to those who put the man on a pedestal. John Brown, while heroic, is also shown to be a somewhat disorganized and reckless man who relies on faith (and luck) more than plans to get through. More than once, Onion notes that John Brown and other abolitionists talk on behalf of slaves, assuming that they know exactly what they want, without inviting blacks to speak for themselves. In fact, when Brown travels east to fundraise among New Englanders for his campaigns, Onion notes that rarely are there blacks in the audience and that “…them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west…. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”
McBride’s fictional characters are really well drawn and complex. The two I found most interesting besides Onion were Pie, the mulatto slave prostitute, and Sibonia, the slave who attempted rebellion. These two women are both owned by brothel/saloon owner Abby. Pie has greater status than the “pen” slaves like Sibonia, who live outside and do backbreaking work. They can be sold at any time. Pie feels no connection to or sympathy for them and sees the work of abolitionists as dangerous to the safety of slaves such as herself. When Onion tells her that he has ridden with John Brown, she says, “That’s all I need …. Old John Brown riding here, screwing things up and whipping them pen niggers into a frenzy. They’ll wail away on every nigger in sight. If it was up to me, every nigger in that pen would be sold down the river.” Sibonia, on the other hand, feels solidarity with her fellow slaves to the point of sacrificing herself to protect them. She also has a marvelous scene in which she demonstrates to the local minister that her actions are in fact the fulfillment of the scripture that he preaches, causing the minister to leave the town in disgust over the treatment of the local slaves.
Onion’s ambivalence about abolition is most clearly stated in this part of the narrative where Onion finds himself enslaved again. “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception. Miss Abby was a slaveholder, true enough, but she was a good slaveholder. She was a lot like Dutch. She runned a lot of businesses, which meant the businesses mostly runned her.” He goes on to say “… slavery ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it and growed used to it.” With time and a betrayal, Onion comes gradually to the cause of freedom, but even then he struggles with a desire to run away to Philadelphia and just save his own skin.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. There is a lot to discuss here and this review only scratches the surface. While the topic is heavy and some scenes, particularly once the action starts at the armory, are brutal and violent, there is also quite a bit of humor. The ending, with the final scene between Onion and John Brown was beautifully done. The author’s admiration for Brown, despite his flaws, is evident. This is a great pick for a book club.