Best Book of the Week!
Henry “Onion” Shackleford is a boy working with his father in a barber shop when John Brown and his followers ride into town. He relates his story many years later when he is more than 100 years old.
Henry and his father are African-American slaves living in the Kansas Territory near Laurence, a hotbed during the Border Wars, referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown has come to help the Free Staters, those who want Kansas to be free of slavery. But Brown’s ultimate goal is to rid the country of slavery, and he doesn’t care how he does it. In the resulting fight, Henry’s father is killed, and Brown “frees” Henry by kidnapping him.
Because, as Henry points out several times in his narrative, John Brown sees only what he wants to see, he mistakes Henry in his potato sack clothing for a girl. From then on, Henry is a girl as far as Brown’s followers are concerned, and Brown calls him Onion.
What follows is an an account of the deeds of John Brown, leading up to the assault on Harper’s Ferry. This tale is often cynical or ironic, boundlessly energetic, irreverent, and funny as well as touching. Brown is depicted as a sort of half-crazed, raggedy zealot, who is capable of stopping midway across a stream while being pursued by his enemies to pray for half an hour. Only his son Owen is brave enough to interrupt him and try to get him on his way.
Onion and other slaves they encounter are reluctant to be freed, afraid they’re going to end up in hotter water than they started. They have some cause. Onion, in fact, is almost always planning how he’ll escape the group and does so several times. But he always ends up back with Brown. His adventures lead him to residence in a whorehouse, a visit with Frederick Douglass (who gets drunk and tries to seduce “Henrietta”), and a more impressive meeting with Harriet Tubman in Canada. All the while, Brown attempts to “hive the Negroes” to revolt at the appropriate time.
The wonder is that with all this poking fun, McBride somehow manages to make us care deeply for John Brown and to honor his place as a trigger for the Civil War. This is an unusual novel—highly entertaining yet also deeply serious.