How did I get the idea this book was about baseball? Sheesh.
The Good Lord Bird is the story of Henry Shackleton, a boy who is freed from slavery by none other than abolitionist John Brown. However, Brown thinks the name is Henrietta, and as he's dressed in a gunny sack, Brown doesn't realize he is not a she. He nicknames the child Onion, and Onion decides to hold his tongue about his actual gender, seeing as how being perceived to be female gets him out of the hardest work and away from the front-line battles Brown is waging against slavery. Off they go on a three-year journey around the Midwest and finally, fatally, to Harpers Ferry.
During these three years, Onion spends some time living and working in a saloon and whorehouse, where he becomes quite talented at holding his liquor. A trait that serves him well when he meets Frederick Douglass, who might be legendary for his orations and speaking against slavery, but in this book, is a bit of a lech who tries to get Onion drunk, not realizing that Onion can drink him under the table.
That's one of the set pieces from the book to give me pause. Mostly I enjoyed the book. Author McBride has a way with dialect. He knows how to use just enough to give a flavor without making it hard to read. Onion is often funny, not always intentionally so, and John Brown is a religious fanatic wingnut ready to sacrifice everything to fight the good fight against slavery, even when some of the slaves he's trying to free don't want him to.
But the story about Douglass broke my reader's spell. Was Douglass, in fact, a lech that way? A very quick Google search didn't bring up much. That's a mighty big risk for an author to take, to use a historical figure who is revered for his work and drop in such a nasty backstory. Part of me thinks it was kind of brilliant, a way of reminding us that all these historical figures are just people. Part of me thinks it was mean-spirited, and a set piece that would have been funnier if it had been a fictional John Brown follower instead.
I can't answer the question of whether or not it was appropriate or fitting. I can say that otherwise, I enjoyed Onion's journey enormously. Onion's narration was bright and crisp:
"Huge trees, covered with icicles, crackled like giant skeletons."
"He mangled the BIble more than any man I ever knowed, including my Pa, but with a bigger purpose, 'cause he knowed more words."
"One thing you learns when you is a girl is that most women's hearts is full of secrets."
So, thumbs up on this one, and if anyone knows if Frederick Douglass was really a rapscallion, please let me know.