Author: James McBride
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: June 2016
I knew next to nothing about the abolitionist John Brown, but this book has given me a good sense in the historical fiction fashion. A rowdy and righteous character, he’s one of the more fascinating characters of the American West, at least in James McBride’s interpretation. The protagonist, “Onion,” has this to say about Brown, or “the Old Man”:
The Old Man weren’t normal. For one thing, he rarely ate, and he seemed to sleep mostly atop his horse. He was old compared to his men, wrinkled and wiry, but nearly as strong as every one of them except Fred. He marched for hours without stopping, his shoes full of holes, and was overall gruff and hard generally. … He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, “thees” and “thous” and “takest” and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed, including my Pa, but with a bigger purpose, ’cause he knowed more words. Only when he got hot did the Old Man quote the Bible exact to the letter, and then it was trouble, for it meant someone was about to walk to the quit line. He was a lot to deal with, Old Brown.
The mangled Bible quoting is fantastic fun, the kind of speculative past language that may or may not have existed out on the plains of the day. It feels authentic and outlandish, and the sharp conversations combine with a rollicking plot to really push the book along. Old Man Brown overshadows most everything, except for a middle section in which Onion is separated from him. Onion’s main deal is that he is a former slave captured away and enlisted in Brown’s army, but mistaken for a girl. He uses this to his advantage to avoid fighting for the most part. He also reflects on the complexities and paradoxes of his situation, such as how poor he is living as an outlaw:
That’s the thing about working under Old John Brown, and if I’m tellin’ a lie I hope I drop down a corpse after I tell it: I was starving fooling with him. I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels.
He also speculates on Brown’s fervent mission to bring the freedom fight directly out in the open, in which the famous troublemaker “reckoned every colored wanted to fight for his freedom. It never occurred to him that they would feel any other way.” While the whites are out arguing over slavery through the lenses of land and money and culture, many of the slaves can only look out for themselves and try not to take a position, which of course baffles Brown. And even though this isn’t meant to be a strictly academic text, McBride hints at even more historical shades of gray in describing the opinions on various types of slave holders, some of which were worse than others:
Slave traders was generally despised. Even Pro Slavers didn’t favor them much, for men who traded cash for blood wasn’t considered working people, but more like thieves or traders in souls and your basic superstitious pioneer didn’t take to them types.
Further along the interesting historical paths we encounter layered portrayals of Frederick Douglass (“There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person, of which I reckon they figured there was only one in the world, Mr. Douglass.”) and Harriet Tubman (“The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.”) The book’s action leads up to Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, another educational episode.
But even aside from the facts the book is based on, it’s just a damn fine Western novel. There are gunfights and shady characters, long hours on the trail and dank saloons, a general atmosphere of distrust mixed with the desperate and righteous causes of the adventurers. It’s consistently funny (“That fool was ugly enough to make you think the Lord put him together with His eyes closed, guessing.”) and always circling back to its tentpole figure (“The Old Man had more bad luck than any man I ever knowed, and that can’t help but make a person likable and interesting.”). As you can see, it’s also endlessly quotable.
A direct descendant of Huck Finn, Onion is just young enough to be wide-eyed at the world and not yet worn down by all the death around him. His river is not the Mississippi but the early streams of a national revolution, and he tells it like he sees it. The book may be only one author’s interpretation of a time, but its grand success is putting the reader there so effectively and enjoyably. American summer reads don’t come much more satisfying than this one.