****NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER****
“The old face, crinkled and dented with canals running every which way, pushed and shoved up against itself for a while, till a big old smile busted out from beneath 'em all, and his grey eyes fairly glowed. It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren't no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside him. I saw it clear for the first time. I knowed then, too, that he knowed what I was - from the very first.”
John Brown the abolitionist.
The narrator of our tale is Henry/Henrietta Shackleford who is peacefully growing up a slave on the Kansas frontier... until John Brown shows up. In an ensuing argument between John Brown and Henry’s owner the boy’s father ends up dead. Henry is spirited away to freedom and none too happy about it. Later when Brown is on lecture tour he asks Henry to participate.
”And I might ask you to tell some of our donors about your life of deprivation and starvation as a slave. Being hungry and all. Whipped scandalous, and them type of things. You can tell them that.”
I didn’t want to confess to him I weren’t never hungry as a slave, nor was never whipped scandalous. Fact is, only time I was hungry and eating out of garbage barrels and sleeping out in the cold was when I was free with him.
Now Henry is obviously a boy, but because of a mixup from the beginning John Brown thinks he is a girl.
See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But 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.
So Henry soon finds himself in a dress and most of the time it works for him because the Old Man didn’t believe in women fighting. Henry dreams about the carefree days when he was a slave living in relative comfort before he was caught up in Brown’s crazy schemes to free the black man.
Sometimes being in a dress doesn’t work so well, for instance, when he meets Frederick Douglass.
He squeezed the back of my neck, then stroked it with fat fingers. “This slender neck, the prominent nose--this too, belongs to the slave owner. They feel it belongs to them. They take what is not rightly theirs. They know not you, Harlot Shackleford.”
“Whatever. They know not you, Henrietta. They know you as property. They know not the spirit inside you that gives you your humanity. They care not about the pounding of your silent and lustful heart, thirsting for freedom; your carnal nature, craving the wide, open spaces that they have procured for themselves. You’re but chattel to them, stolen property to be squeezed, used, savaged, and occupied.”
Well all that tinkering and squeezing and savaging made me right nervous, ‘specially since he was doing it his own self, squeezing and savaging my arse, working his hand down toward my mechanicals as he spoke the last, with his eyes all dewy, so I hopped to my feet.
MR. DOUGLASS!!!, you forget yourself sir.
Frederick Douglass may have had designs on our Little Onion.
James McBride does confess to us that all that Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford says may not be exactly true.
"I love the language of, you know, the old, black, country man with a blues guitar and ... boots and the quick banter. ... I just love that voice and I wanted this character to be an old man looking back on his life and then telling a, just a grand whopper."
James Brown, inflamed with righteous indignation, and convinced that the Lord was on his side starts a war, a crusade, against slavery. The powder keg that is waiting to be lit is in Kansas, a state that must come into the union as a free state. Missouri pro-slavers are riding throughout Kansas intimidating Anti-slavery settlers and even burned the town of Lawrence. Brown’s followers sliced and diced five pro-slavers with broadswords in retaliation.
A tad radical.
He raises an army and fights in several skirmishes with Missouri pro-slavery militia.
In the middle of all this is his good luck charm; Little Onion, the schemer, who is trying like hell to get away from this crazy man. Between all the hours of feverish praying and the constant lecturing Henry knows he can’t be the only one that thinks The Old Man’s cheese had slid off his biscuit.
Henry meets a whole cast of interesting characters during his pell mell journey around the United States and Canada. The descriptions that James McBride crafts of these characters are so memorable, and so creative that I feel like I was standing there with Little Onion when he met them.
Like Harriet Tubman.
Them eyes were staring down at me. I can’t say they was kind eyes. Rather they was tight as balled fists. Full. Firm. Stirred. The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.
Harriet Tubman, her face was like looking into a hurricane.
Or how about Pie, the whore that Henry falls head over heels in love with.
She was a mulatto woman. Skin as brown as a deer’s hide, with high cheekbones and big brown dewy eyes as big as silver dollars. She was a head taller than me but seemed taller. She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got mixed up with the azaleas. She walked like a warm room full of smoke.
Or how about Darg.
He had a thick chest, wide shoulders, and big, thick arms. He wore a straw hat an coveralls and a shawl around his shoulders. His lips was the color of hemp rope, and his eyes was so small and close together, they might as well have been shoved in the same socket. That fool was ugly enough to make you think the Lord put him together with His eyes closed, guessing. But there was power in that man, too, he was raw powerful, and looked big enough to pick up a house.
It all culminates in a final desperate plan to take Harper’s Ferry, liberate the weapons stored there, and give them to the negroes so they can fight for their freedom. Part of Henry’s job was to HIVE the negroes, but no matter how much buzzing he did he found most of the slaves unwilling to risk their lives for freedom especially with a CRAZY WHITE MAN.
The Longer the campaign the more GOD LIKE his appearance became.
John Brown accepted long before even the most fervent abolitionists that peaceful calls for the ending of slavery were never going to lead the blacks any closer to freedom. He knew the entrenched ideas of the Southern culture and their economic ties to slave labor would not be changed without militant insurrection. John Brown fought his own civil war before Lincoln was even elected president. He was, in my opinion, insane, but unswervingly committed to his cause, and certainly on the right side of history. He was a man from Connecticut, who instead of sitting around in meeting houses talking about the horrors of slavery, threw himself into this battle before most of the country had even a glimmer of a thought that a war would be necessary to purge this barbaric practice. Change is so difficult that maybe, we will always need a few bat shit crazy people to force us to move forward.
“Whatever you is, Onion," he said, "be it full.”