John Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.
McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.
Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”