The Short Version: After young slave Henry Shackleford’s father gets killed over a misunderstanding involving famed abolitionist John Brown, he is forced to flee his little town along with Brown… who thinks he’s a girl. Thus begins a curious stretch of years for Henry, now nicknamed Onion, as he travels around Kansas and later the rest of the country in disguise – and as Brown races towards his date with destiny at Harper’s Ferry.
The Review: I love the underdog story of this book’s success. Not to say that it was undeserved or that it wouldn’t’ve been considered a success had it not won the National Book Award this year – but the anecdote about McBride being so unprepared to win that he almost had to deliver his speech with food in his mouth just drives home the sense that this is a book that nobody expected and a story that we didn’t know we needed to hear until we heard it.
I’ve visited the town of Harper’s Ferry. It’s a gorgeous little town, to be sure – but one that never would’ve made it onto the itinerary of a summer vacation had it not been for John Brown. And yet what do I know about John Brown and his raid on the armory? What I learned in my woefully inadequate AP US History class? I don’t know John Brown – and yet he might be the single most important individual in the instigation of the Civil War. McBride seems to think so and, after this book, I’m inclined to agree. He and his crazy quest seem like the spark that finally caught the powder that covered this country back then – and while there are, as we’ve all been told, plenty of other reasons why the Civil War was fought… the slavery issue, the issue of equality overall, was still the largest and easiest to understand.
And I think McBride cannily drops the notion into a reader’s mind that we’re still grappling with these very issues today. I mean, on a surface level, it’s just entertaining to see a character in drag like Henry. There are mix-ups and hijinks and hilarity, to be sure – it’s delightful. But beyond the fun (and I should note – there’s quite a lot of fun. I broke out into numerous grins while reading this book, especially in the first third) there’s a really deep examination of what it means to be yourself. The part where color, gender, all of that falls away and we get to just be – whatever that might mean. John Brown tries to keep Henry as apart from things as he believes women ought to be… but he doesn’t turn him away when he keeps showing up. Pie doesn’t rat Henry out but rather develops an understanding with him. There’s a horrible sense of “wow, why should someone have to pretend in order to just live out their life?” but the novel pushes through that to the other side, where the reader is left thinking instead, “what did it matter the outside – Onion’s insides were what mattered at the end.”
Speaking of the end, the novel is split into three parts and it does very much feel like a novel of three acts. Each section (helpfully and tellingly delineated as “Free Deeds”, “Slave Deeds”, and “Legend”) almost tells a slightly different story. The first two keep the lighthearted humor and hijinks rolling, allowing the sort of crazy picaresque moments you might expect from a novel with this concept to just happen one after another – but it’s the third where things take a turn. As Brown nears the infamous October Sunday when he planned to raid the armory, you can feel the weight of history creeping in – both to the story itself and to McBride’s telling of it. Clouds gather across the page and a seriousness that didn’t seem to be there before suddenly takes over. I wouldn’t mind this so much except that it happens so powerfully (death comes a-knocking and trouble finally catches up with ol’ John Brown, as we all well know) that we suddenly wonder if it was right to’ve been laughing earlier. After all, it’s hard not to laugh at John Brown – out of incredulity, if nothing else. Picture him: all arms and legs, beat up clothes, crazy bushy eyebrows and beard, ranting and raving about God. It’s a funny image, no doubt, and we’re allowed to laugh at him – even encouraged. But at Harper’s Ferry, the joke of a man suddenly seems all too human and all too misunderstood. For we know now that Brown was in the right, if his tactics were perhaps in the wrong. And as he strides into that final fight, with his habitual disregard for the bullets whizzing around him… it no longer seems humorous but tragic in the Grecian mold. It’s classical, larger than life. McBride almost gives you the feeling that you’re watching Brown step from life into legend – and that immense weight at the end of the book overpowers the frothy fun (that term used loosely – slavery is never actually fun) of the rest of the tome.
Rating: 4 out of 5. McBride’s simple acknowledgement at the end of the book is a thank you to those who didn’t let Brown’s legend die. That alone tells you something: this book is meant to not only keep his memory alive further but to perhaps get us thinking about him beyond the pages of this book. Oh sure, the story is Henry Shackleford’s and we could not ask for a more enjoyable narrator – but while the narrative of Shackleford’s life is the one that we follow through the book, it is Brown who looms over the whole thing just as slavery and the other issues of equality still raging in this country loom even higher. This is a little book that could – just as John Brown was one man who changed the course of history. Flaws aside, it’s a story that needed telling – maybe now more than ever.