The voice of Little Onion in The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013, Riverhead Books) is one of those essential American literary voices that defines and becomes the story it narrates. It’s like Huck or Holden or Scout or Ishmael. It carries personality, point of view, a vision of history. Though the subject of the novel is serious—John Brown, abolitionism, slavery—Onion’s voice offers a new or at least distinctive way of viewing it. Onion avoids the potential pitfall of exaggerating a historical figure into heroic proportions. John Brown is already legend. But he gives Brown to us here as a devout man obsessively dedicated to the eradication of slavery, often lacking good judgment, capable of murderousness, willing to sacrifice himself and others, willing to go to any extreme to achieve his goals, a man whose piety often seems blended with psychotic mania, but who to the end is true to his purpose. The comic tone of the novel ensures that we don’t overlook the historical realities of its subject, that he becomes neither more nor less than what he was. Only at the end, does the tone veer slightly and briefly towards sentimentalism.
Comparisons of McBride with such novelists as E. L. Doctorow are logical— historical figures often appear in his work. But I was most reminded of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), which, like this novel, is narrated by an old man about his exploits with various historical characters at a much younger age. A similar comic tone characterizes that novel as well as this one.
The Good Lord Bird follows John Brown’s skirmishes in Kansas against pro-slavery homesteaders to his unsuccessful seizure of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, where he hoped to prompt a slave uprising. Onion’s narrative manner is comic and matter of fact. Many if not most of the events he describes, many of them involving murders, all of them tangentially if not directly involved with slavery, are grim, but the comic voice offers an interesting perspective.
The narrator masquerades as a girl for the entirety of the novel. The masquerade serves as a way for McBride to explore the deceptions and masquerades that being owned as property enforces on slaves—how they must pretend to be one thing when in fact they’re something else.
Onion is especially contemptuous of Frederick Douglass, whom he finds unequal to his fame. In one scene Douglass becomes drunk and tries to seduce Onion. Although Douglass encouraged Brown’s plans for Harper’s Ferry, he refused to take part, arguing (correctly, as it turned out) that the attack was doomed to fail. More admiring is the account of Harriet Tubman, who also makes an appearance and who, but for illness, would have been part of the Harpers Ferry raid.