If you read enough books, you’ll find a few that are so wildly entertaining, so brilliantly written that you will wish they didn’t have to end. Alas, even great books end eventually. Fortunately for us, the good feelings evoked by these books can last a long time.
“The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride is that sort of book. It was such a joy to read — I’m still smiling over it. His prologue draws you right in with this fanciful premise: in 1966 a church in Wilmington, Del., burned down and “among the charred remains were several charred notebooks.”
A long-time church deacon had been an amateur historian. He recorded the recollections of another church member, the late Henry “the Onion” Shackleford, and placed this centenarian’s recollections inside a fireproof box concealed beneath the floorboards. This fabulous story has risen from the ashes.
McBride’s narrator “Little Onion” reels us right in to this tale with his opening: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” Onion’s story begins before the Civil War.
His voice is distinctive and amusing. Here’s his description of his father: “Pa made some of the best rotgut in Kansas Territory — though he was a preacher, Pa wasn’t against a taste or three — and like as not, the same gunslingers who tore out his hair and knocked him cold would pick him up afterward and say ‘Let’s liquor,’ and the whole bunch of ‘em would wander off and howl at the moon, drinking Pa’s giddy sauce.”
Before too long the abolitionist John Brown turns up at the tavern where Onion works. Brown declares that he is there “to free every colored man in this territory.” This is where the initial confusion regarding Onion’s gender happens. Brown mistakenly hears Henry’s name as Henrietta. Shortly thereafter Brown chooses a nickname for her (him). He begins calling Henrietta his Little Onion. Onion plays along.
He starts wearing a dress.
John Brown was destined to make history by leading the famous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. “The Good Lord Bird” is a fantastic flight of imagination, a fictional account of how Onion became one of Brown’s raiders and miraculously lived to tell the tale.
Onion wasn’t with Brown the whole time. While Brown violently delivered his anti-slavery message, Onion was living in a brothel, hopelessly enamored with a beautiful, unattainable prostitute.
“The Good Lord Bird” flows in an unstoppable torrent as Onion provides a blow by blow accounting of all that transpired along the way to Harper’s Ferry. One senses that this story burst forth exuberantly from the author’s imagination.
McBride told me “I miss that character. I miss Onion, and I miss his world. I miss John Brown and all the people from Kansas; the pro-slavers and the free staters. I miss all that.” You can hear my interview with the author this Sunday morning at 11 on WYSO (91.3FM).
He will be one of the featured authors at the Books by the Banks Festival.
How to go
What: 100+ authors appearing at the Books by The Banks Cincinnati USA Book Festival
Where: Duke Energy Convention Center, 525 Elm St., in downtown Cincinnati.
When: Saturday, Oct. 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission.
Information is available at www.booksbythebanks.org
“The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride (Riverhead Books, 417 pages, $27.95)