There are widely varying opinions about the sanity, mission and effects of John Brown who escalated the pre-war tensions of the Civil War to the point there was really no avoiding it. Some say he was mad, others say he was a visionary – there is a considerable amount known about his life outside his head but inside? Well, that may always be a puzzle.
West Virginia Culture.org This is good – The Good Lord Bird info starts about Chapter 5).
I’ve read enough about John Brown what with Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
in 2012 and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks prior to that. I know the outline of the history – except (see below).
McBride uses what historical info is available and rather than producing the tragedy that Harper’s Ferry was (or was not), he comes up with a supposedly funny story told in first person by a completely fictional boy between the ages of about 11 and 14 known as “Onion.” It is Onion’s memoirs which are found in a church many years later providing a very slim frame story.
The character of Onion is described as being a rather effeminate octoroon who was first owned by Dutch Henry, a Kansas slave owner, but “freed” by Brown. Onion is also a boy in girl’s clothing, a bit innocent, a bit not – really just wanting to grow up and find a girlfriend, whether he be free or not – he’s mixed on that issue for himself – at least for awhile. After being “emancipated” by Brown, Onion travels with the gang/group or near them from the outbreak at Dutch’s Crossing to the bitter end reporting the story to us as he sees it.
What makes this book stand out, although I didn’t realize this until the end, is the respect McBride has for Brown. Although the book is very silly and has way too much dialect-filled dialogue for my tastes, this time the history is presented from a Black point of view. This is new to me and it opened up some history about the free blacks who fought by Brown.