January 15, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 3

Arts & Entertainment

Tragedy as comedy, atrocity as farce

By Elliott Bronstein / Contributing Writer

Book Review - The Good Lord Bird | By James McBride

In this comic novel, a young boy, mistaken for a girl, witnesses the lead-up to an ill-fated slave revolt

Illustration by Amy Pelz

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You know the story of John Brown, right?

How his army roared across Kansas all the way to Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., to foment a slave rebellion. Only the revolution was called on account of poor attendance, so we, an ungrateful nation, fought the Civil War instead.

“The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride sings the song of old John Brown as told by young Henry Shackleford, a slave that fate preposterously shoves into Brown’s arms and path.

McBride doesn’t take long to get to it: By the fifth page we’re sitting in Dutch Henry’s Bar near the Missouri border with young Henry watching his pa cut the hair of John Brown himself — “a stooped, skinny feller, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung” — trading Bible verses at top volume and shouting about freeing slaves. Soon guns are drawn and fired, there’s blood on the floor, Brown is on the run again, except this time he’s carrying young Henry, whom Brown believes is a girl named Henrietta, soon christened Onion by Brown and his more than half-starved band of confused souls in the middle of bloody Kansas.

“Old John Brown’s fearsome army which I heard so much about weren’t nothing but a ragtag assortment of fifteen of the scrawniest, bummiest, saddest-looking individuals you ever saw,” says young Onion (Henry/Henrietta), who also runs skeptical on John Brown’s quixotic mission. “Slavery ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it and growed used to it,” says Onion. “It was easier than being on the trail, running from posses and sharing a roasted squirrel with five others while the Old Man was hollering over the whole roasted business for an hour before you could even get to the vittles.”

McBride, who took home the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for “The Good Lord Bird,” chronicles the hard reality of mid-19th century U.S.A. by laughing at its heroes — which is to say, the abolitionist side. In McBride’s telling, it’s as if Huck Finn himself showed up in a parallel universe as a young slave boy disguised as a girl who’s an unwilling mascot to a hapless, nonexistent army led by a crazed zealot who nevertheless manages to end slavery — just not the way he or anyone else planned it.

Like an antebellum Forrest Gump, Onion just happens to be present at most of the key moments of Brown’s campaign: the Pottawatomie Massacre, the Constitutional Convention in Chatham, Ontario, a visit to Frederick Douglass’s home in Rochester, N.Y. … and of course the Harper’s Ferry raid itself.

In Ontario, Onion meets Harriet Tubman, whom he describes like this:

“Them eyes was staring down at me. I can’t say they was kind eyes. Rather they was tight as balled fists. Full. Firm. Stirred. The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.”

His visit with Frederick Douglass is no less memorable: Believing Onion to be a teenage girl — “a pretty little piece of pork chop under all them rags” — the aroused Douglass tries to seduce her (him) with alcohol. Unsuccessfully.

Think of the two astonishing renditions of slavery released in 2013: the unblinking film “12 Years a Slave” and the rollicking novel “The Good Lord Bird.” Tragedy and comedy, the paired masks of theater. Each artwork in its own way captures a truth too easily forgotten: that people lived and died, but mostly lived, in the midst of depraved insanity. McBride takes us back to a U.S.A. where government was a rumor and the difference between revolutionary and crazy also happened to be the distance between victory and defeat. Brown may have been our 19th century Che Guevara, but unfortunately less Cuba, where he played a pivotal role in the Cuban Revolution, and more Bolivia, where his unsuccessful attempts at revolution led to his execution by Bolivian military.

Onion is more than just a witness to history — if young Henry’s story is true, then it was his fault that the slaves at Harper’s Ferry never rose up to join Brown’s rebellion. But that’s Henry’s little secret, and it reminds us that if you want to know what really happened, read the fiction. Or, as Henry said of John Brown’s vision of racial equity:

“I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

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