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.”