John Brown's body swung from the gallows in 1859 following his unsuccessful raid on the Harpers Ferry armory, a botched attempt to steal guns, arm America's slaves and spark a revolution.
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Novelist James McBride melds imaginative detail with solemn historical accounts to give us "The Good Lord Bird," a superbly written novel centered on Brown's fiery fight against slavery that explores how the famed abolitionist's actions incited people of every color to rebel in the run-up to the Civil War.
Through crackling prose and smart, wryly humorous dialogue, McBride tells his story through the eyes of the slave Henry Shackleford, who as a young boy is kidnapped by Brown during one of his Kansas raids. Using a slave as the standard-bearer for this fight-for-freedom story could be the way any author might approach a pre-Civil War tale, but Shackleford is no ordinary boy. Readers learn quickly that neither is he an ordinary girl.
As the novel opens, journals charting Shackleford's four years on the run with Brown turn up in 1966 in the charred ruins of The First United Negro Baptist Church in Wilmington, Del. The first line of Shackleford's journal reads "'I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.'"
This astounding revelation kicks off a relentlessly suspenseful story filled with Brown's raids on pro-slavery militias and any slave owner who got in his way. As guns blaze and broadswords hack and slice, Shackleford's stirring narrative also unfolds.
Henry, a diminutive biracial boy of 9 whose only garment is a potato sack, is mistaken by Brown for a girl. Brown gives Henry a dress and bonnet he had bought for his daughter. After Henry eats Brown's good-luck charm, an onion he kept in his pocket for 14 months, Brown dubs Henry "little Onion" and declares him his new good-luck charm.
Charms play an important part in "The Good Lord Bird." Onion, as he's now known, first learns about a black and white woodpecker with a touch of red from Brown's son Fred. "'They call that a Good Lord Bird,'" Fred tells Onion. "'It's so pretty that when man sees it, he says, "Good Lord." … (T)hey say a feather from a Good Lord Bird'll bring you understanding that'll last your whole life.'"
Brown himself is very much a Good Lord Bird. His incendiary speeches and battleground bravado are slowly awakening others to the necessity of abolition. Onion's in the thick of it, but it takes a while for him to have his "Good Lord" moment. He hides behind his skirt unable and unwilling to embrace his gender and his feelings about slavery and freedom.
While Brown rides hard from town to town yelling "I'm John Brown from Kansas, and I's fighting slavery," Onion doesn't seem to have any fight in him at all. A full belly and a warm place to sleep are his preoccupations. He even considers returning to his master. But life as a girl in Brown's camp seems mighty sweet. He has household chores but isn't expected to fight.
But Onion's evolution from slave boy to young man hungering for freedom reflects much of the book's message. In one particularly moving scene, abolitionist Harriet Tubman tells Onion and other blacks reluctant to join Brown's fight, "And you setting here on the doorstep of change, scared to walk through it? I ought to take a switch to some of you. Who's a man here? Be a man!" McBride peoples his novel with other historical figures — Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart — and they all play a part in Onion's moral awakening.
"The Good Lord Bird" is a tribute to small but accumulating steps that eventually led to a stampede toward justice and equality. Wrapping the ugliness of slavery in a pitch-perfect adventure story is more than just a reimagining of an historic event. McBride, as he did in "Song Yet Sung" and "Miracle at St. Anna," transcends history and makes it come alive.
Everyone needs a "Good Lord" moment, and in this timeless tale, McBride dishes up a doozy.
Carol Memmott's reviews have appeared in USA Today and People.
"The Good Lord Bird"
By James McBride, Riverhead, 417 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun