Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre–Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it,” reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet naïve voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl—a mistake he embraces for safety’s sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown’s violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word “trim” temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him “Onion,” their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves (“hiving bees”) to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/03/2013 Release date: 08/20/2013 Genre: Fiction
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