History abounds with women who lived as men: Charley Parkhurst, for instance, the hard-bitten, one-eyed, whip-snapping coachman of the gold rush days who may have been the first woman to vote in a California election; or Marina the Monk, who dodged marriage by hieing to a monastery, persuading its brothers she was a man and dying repudiated, in penury, because she was falsely accused of fathering a child; or Billy Tipton, the jazz musician who found love with a stripper named Kitty Kelly and wasn’t found out until one of their adopted sons spied incontrovertible evidence of gender in Billy’s deathbed. Literature, too, has girls donning breeches to take up the sword, dames donning mustaches to cross enemy lines and even a Shakespearean heroine passing herself off as a stout-hearted shepherd.
But history and literature seldom have it the other way around: boy passes as a girl. Rarer still: boy consigned to girlhood in a cockeyed, befuddled moment by a Very Important Person whom no one dares to contradict.
That, at least, is the premise of “The Good Lord Bird,” a boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel by James McBride, the author of three other notable books: a memoir about his biracial childhood, “The Color of Water”; and the novels “Song Yet Sung” and “Miracle at St. Anna.”
The boy in question is young Henry Shackleford, described in “The Good Lord Bird” as a Baptist who lived to 103 and “claimed to to have been the only Negro to survive the American outlaw John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859.” The Very Important Person is none other than fiery abolitionist Brown, who, hard into the freeing business in Kansas, sees a black boy with a pretty face, takes him for a girl and, when he hears the child’s father say, “Massa, my Henry ain’t a — ,” makes the cardinal error that will define this rollicking novel until its last page.
As Henry describes it in notebooks that turn up 100 years after the doomed raid on Harpers Ferry, “The Old Man heard Pa say ‘Henry ain’t a,’ and took it to be ‘Henrietta,’ which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”
Mistake follows mistake in this rambunctious comedy of errors, and Old Man Brown and his hard-riding horde head straight to the Kansas flatlands to rescue 11-year-old Henrietta from slavery. Brown’s fearsome army, hellbent on retribution, turns out to be “nothing but a ragtag assortment of fifteen of the scrawniest, bummiest, saddest-looking individuals you ever saw.” Owen — one of the Old Man’s 22 children — is so loaded down by sword, gun and knife that he rattles like a noisy hardware store. Indeed, the Pottawatomie Rifles, as Brown’s raiders are called, are a pitiful sight to behold. Their coats look as if mice have had at them; their boots are more toes than leather; they stink of too many nights on the prairie and rank buffalo dung. They’re hardly the army they’re cracked up to be. And yet, to hear folks tell it, “Old John Brown and his murderous sons planned to deaden every man, woman, and child on the prairie. Old John Brown stole horses. Old John Brown burned homesteads. Old John Brown raped women and hacked off heads. Old John Brown done this, and old John Brown done that, and why, by God, by the time they was done with him, Old John Brown sounded like the most onerous, murderous, low-down son of a bitch you ever saw.”
When he appears, the Old Man is wild, fulminant, “a plain terror in the praying department” and so passionate a white abolitionist that he’s likely to “air out” — downright kill — any fool who dares defend the institution to his face. It’s also increasingly obvious to Henrietta, who goes hungrier in Brown’s cohort than she ever did as a white man’s slave, that the Old Man may be missing a few buttons in the sanity department. All the same, the Brown she comes to know is kind. He worries about her; he gives her a smashed bonnet and a rumpled dress. He points her out as a braver, more dedicated fellow traveler than any man in his company. When he rummages through his flea-bitten pocket to pull out an onion covered with lint, she pops it in her mouth and eats it, unaware that it is his lucky charm. “My good luck lives between your ears now,” he tells her. Known as “Little Onion” from then on, Henrietta becomes the abolitionist’s indispensable little girl, expected to bring him good fortune. Brown gives Little Onion one more gift, the feather of a bird so beautiful that when a man sees it, he can’t help but say, “good Lord.” It will be the symbol of understanding between them.
And so, for the next three years, Little Onion takes us from adventure to misadventure; from riding the plains with Brown’s Bible-thumping roughnecks to falling in love with a mulatto harlot; from guzzling “giddy juice” with the randy Frederick Douglassto palavering with Harriet Tubman; from the Pottawatomie Massacre to the bloodier, more infamously terrible events of Harpers Ferry.
Against the grim grid of history, we see a bumptious American story, and McBride’s use of the vernacular throughout makes for a comical ride. Henrietta is sent off to “hive the bees,” to raise up a mighty swarm of blacks willing to take up arms against slavery. Since she is but a girl, she will hardly be suspected. But we all know how this story ends. Douglass bows out. Tubman meets with the Old Man and wishes him her best. But the bees never do hive. A terrible climax will come to pass, and we hurtle toward it, laughing.
There is something deeply humane in this, something akin to the work of Homer or Mark Twain. We tend to forget that history is all too often made by fallible beings who make mistakes, calculate badly, love blindly and want too much. We forget, too, that real life presents utterly human heroes with far more contingency than history books can offer. McBride’s Little Onion — a sparkling narrator who is sure to win new life on the silver screen — leads us through history’s dark corridors, suggesting that “truths” may actually lie elsewhere.
By the book’s end, when we know Brown will be hanged and Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth — as record has it — will be there to watch it happen, we will have traversed 400 pages of a deeply researched, richly imagined novel. We will have wandered into the Might Have Been.
We are also left with a Might Have Been when we read: “It is one thing to say you is gonna fight slavery and ride east to do it and take the war all the way to Africa and so forth. It is another to keep riding day after day in the cold to do it.”
McBride’s Brown gives us a fascinating glimpse into history. But his Henrietta truly rides on to do it.
Arana, a writer at large for The Post, is the author of a biography of South American liberator Simon Bolivar as well as the novels “Cellophane” and “Lima Nights.” Arana and James McBride will speak at the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival on the Mall on Sept. 21.
THE GOOD LORD BIRD
By James McBride
Riverhead. 417 pp. $27.95