Monday, March 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Good Lord Bird

From time to time I'll delve into a historical fiction book. I do it for entertainment value more so than for gaining knowledge. For me it is much like watching a "history movie." Similarly, I often read historical fiction to see how close it follows the actual history it is meant to reflect. When I suggested The Good Lord Bird by James McBride to our book club at work, I thought it might create some good discussion about John Brown, Bleeding Kansas, and the Harpers Ferry Raid. I'll find out on Sunday when we meet to discuss it.

The Good Lord Bird follows the story of Henry, a slave boy working in a Kansas Territory tavern with his enslaved father who is a barber. Their owner is Dutch Henry Sherman, a pro-slavery settler, who actually existed. In a twist of fate, John Brown visits the tavern and ends up in an argument with Dutch Henry and then kidnaps Henry, who Brown believes is a girl named Henrietta. Brown nicknames the boy he thinks is a girl "Little Onion," who decides to maintain his female identity to keep safe. Brown comes to see Onion as his good luck charm and keeps him/her close at hand through his adventures in attempting to thoroughly abolitionize Kansas for the Free State cause.

Onion is on tap for the Pottawatomie (McBride doesn't use that name for some reason) killings, which the story links to the Charles Sumner caning. I've never really believed that direct link existed, as the caning occurred on the afternoon on May 22, 1856 and the killings on the night of May 24 into the early hours of May 25. I have always has serious doubts that the news could have traveled from Washington D.C. to the remote area of Kansas where Brown was operating within 48 hours time. More likely Brown committed the act in retaliation for the sacking of Lawrence.

Onion also was at the Battle of Black Jack, which occurred on June 2, 1856. The youngster befriends Brown's simple son Frederick and is also at Osawatomie where Frederick is killed by pro-slavers. McBride places the lost fight at Osawatomie in 1857. It actually occurred in August 1856. Soon after, Onion gets separated from Brown and ends up in Pikesville, Missouri working at a brothel for a time before again being rescued by Brown and his riders. He/she goes with Brown on a fundraising trip visiting the east coast abolitionists to raise funds for Brown's planned raid on Harpers Ferry. At a stop in Rochester, New York to visit Frederick Douglass, McBride takes storytelling liberties and has Douglass attempting to take advantage of Onion after getting tipsy.

Like with Douglass, McBride works many of Brown's historical associates and enemies into his story. Included are Harriet Tubman, Hugh Forbes, Henry Clay Pate, free black Haywood (Hayward) Shepherd, and a number of the Harpers Ferry raiders, among others are worked into the tale. Some seem to be accurately portrayed, while others like Douglass do not fit the historical record of their personality. I suppose that is to be expected with a work of historical fiction.

Some of the place locations are off, too. For example, McBride puts Lewis Washington's plantation on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Onion survives the Harpers Ferry raid, visits Brown in the Charles Town jail early on the morning of his hanging, and then made his way to Philadelphia.

The book is definitely an entertaining read and provides an adventure story unlike many others. There is not a turn of phrase that McBride does not like or seemingly tried to incorporate in the book. It is clear that the author researched Brown's history fairly well in order to get the people and places included in the book, however, it is somewhat disappointing that McBride strayed as often as he did from what is a thrilling tale on its own without changing the documented facts. Regardless, I encourage those interested in John Brown and his important place in history to read it, if for nothing else than for an entertaining read.

What is the Good Lord Bird, you ask? Well, I won't spoil everything.

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