James McBride’s newest novel, The Good Lord Bird, unflinchingly explores both the build-up to the Civil War and complex themes of identity, race, freedom, and how far people are willing to go to fight injustice.

Also, the novel’s really funny and narrated by a cross-dressing teenage boy, who’s accidentally freed from slavery against his will and drafted into John Brown’s ragtag militia fighting a hopeless crusade against slaveowners. “I like a whopper,” McBride says. “I didn’t really want to write a book that was droll and serious. I just don’t like those kinds of books.”

Narrated by Henry Shackleford, also known as Henrietta, also known as “Onion,” The Good Lord Bird uses an occasional light touch and genuine humor to depict some of America’s darkest moments. The novel contains elements of the tall-tale, or the whoppers that McBride enjoys so much. For example, a brief prologue explains that the manuscript was found in the 1960s in an iron box that survived a church fire. Onion himself lived well past 100 years old, and his story is the only close accounting of John Brown’s bloody raid on the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, an event widely cited as the spark for the Civil War.

McBride discovered the story of John Brown while writing his previous novel, 2008’s Song Yet Sung. Brown spent years travelling the country with his many sons and one daughter, raising money for the abolitionist cause and occasionally freeing slaves by killing their masters. “The more I read about Brown the more fantastic he seemed. He was like John Coltrane,” McBride says. “So far ahead of his time, so dedicated to the idea of equality. So pure. People thought he was mad. And he’s a perfect caricature-device for a book that would be funny.”

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To tackle such a morally ambiguous and complex time, McBride knew he needed to think small—and that’s how he found a teenage narrator. Onion humanizes Brown and gives the reader an unexpected hero. Onion’s youth and delicate features, combined with the fact that he was wearing a simple potato sack when freed, convince Brown and his followers that he’s a young girl. Onion doesn’t mean for the ruse to last so long, but, as he says, “I didn’t know what the hell [Brown] was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

McBride knew the novel would be too boring if John Brown himself narrated, or if he tried to focus on big ideas or themes. “You have to write a small story and let it grow organically,” he says. “The ideas will follow the characters. But if the words are pulling your story, then it’s taking your story out of its slot. You have to follow the river; you can’t make the river follow you.”

Following his own river has allowed McBride to excel in multiple genres and art forms. McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, is considered a modern classic. In addition to two other novels, he co-wrote with Spike Lee the film adaptation of his own Miracle at St. Anna, and he’s also an accomplished jazz musician.

McBride believes his work in other art forms, especially jazz, has helped him become a better, more nuanced writer. Both writing and jazz involve “a solo played over a structural form,” he says. In writing, as in music, “There are certain rules you have to follow even though you’re free to a certain degree.” Yet, despite his impressive range, McBride doesn’t like to work in multiple forms at the same time. “When I’m writing heavy I can’t play music or compose. I can’t play a gig. I can do one at a time.”

The focus he brought to this novel should help McBride achieve one of his aims, which is to inform modern readers about Brown’s crusade. “Brown is definitely one of the forgotten American heroes of the Civil War era,” he says. “He should be like Jesse James except he really stood for something. Now, if you were someone whose head he chopped off you wouldn’t feel that way,” McBride admits with a laugh. 

In the novel, Brown is a force of nature and a man completely assured of his divine right to end slavery at all costs. “Every time Old Man [Brown] started talking holy, just the mention of his Maker’s name made him downright dangerous,” McBride writes. “A kind of electricity climbed over him. His voice become like gravel scrapin’ a dirt road. Something raised up in him. His old, tried frame dropped away, and in its place stood a man wound up like a death mill.”McBride Cover

Onion’s narration contains just the right amount of youthful energy and naivete to provide a judgment-free take on towering American figures. He’s not completely dazzled by Brown’s passion or Frederick Douglass’ eloquence. Onion’s only trying to survive and if he has to lie, hide or take the comfortable bed inside with young girls while his fellow slaves sleep outside in a pig pen, then that’s what Onion has to do. 

Embracing the ambiguity of the time was one of McBride’s goals. Bird challenges most depictions of the frontier and the early “Wild West” era. People are desperate and hungry, taverns are not romantic and almost no one wants to be dragged into battles for vague ideas like equality and justice. McBride isn’t interested in depicting all pro-slavery people as evil and all slaves as Spartacus. “Most blacks woke up dreaming of freedom, but few reacted to that idea positively and few acted on the impulse,” McBride says. “There were plenty of blacks during slavery who wouldn’t swallow the idea of breaking for freedom. They just wanted to make it through the day.”

The Good Lord Bird provides such a complex, detailed picture of America, and Onion is such an interesting character, that the reader can’t help but speculate on what happened the other 80-odd years of his life. Not that McBride is ready to dive back into Onion’s world. “There’s an old saying in jazz, ‘Leave the audience wanting more,’” McBride says. “I wish I could write an 800-page book about him, he’s such a strong character, but he might want to walk into the sunset.” McBride laughs, “I’ll have to ask him.”

Richard Z. Santos lives in Austin and is writing his first novel. His fiction, essays, and nonfiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Nimrod, HTML Giant, The Texas Observer and many others.