The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history.