The Good Lord Bird
by James McBride
419 pages (Kindle)
Source: Personal library
“I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” Thus begins the oral history of Henry Shackleford, aka “the Onion,” who was mistaken for a girl when he was kidnapped by white abolitionist John Brown in the wake of Brown accidentally causing the death of Henry’s father. Onion finds it easier to just go along with his new identity, on account of the Old Man being completely off his rocker and fixin’ to start a war to end slavery. As Onion tells his version of the events leading up to Brown’s disastrous 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, it’s really Brown’s story he’s telling. “The Lord reckons we don’t need training to fight our war. Being on the righteous side of His word is training enough,” Old Brown preaches to Onion. But the boy in the dress knows Brown is the kind of man who “just changed the truth till it fit him.” And he would “tell a fib in a minute to help his cause. He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.” McBride is a master of dialect, and the characters in this novel, which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction, fully embody the complexities of the South prior to the Civil War. While Brown is the primary actor in McBride’s drama, it’s Onion who steals the show. Wary, sly, and affectionate, little Onion is one of the most memorable narrators I’ve read in a long time.
That wraps up our end-of-the-year Micro-Review Marathon; now back to our regular programming. Happy new year!