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Originally published Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 9:36 PM

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‘The Good Lord Bird’: John Brown and a scoundrel sidekick

“The Good Lord Bird” is novelist James McBride’s iconoclastic take on the life of abolitionist John Brown, complete with a rascally gender-bending companion. McBride discusses his book Sept. 11 at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

James McBride

The author of “The Good Lord Bird” will appear at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle. For more information, contact the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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‘The Good Lord Bird’

by James McBride

Riverhead, 432 pp., $27.95

James McBride made a gutsy decision when he chose to retell the rather tragic story of John Brown’s failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 as a historical romp with a gender-bending male slave as the great abolitionist’s sidekick.

The resulting new novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is not only an irrepressibly fun read, but an iconoclastic exploration of a period in American history, the antebellum slave era, that we tend to handle with kid gloves.

It is 1966 and a fire has destroyed Wilmington, Delaware’s, oldest African-American church, leaving behind several charred notebooks from the 1940s containing slave narratives dictated by a late member of the congregation, Henry “the Onion” Shackleford, who claimed that he was the only black person to survive Brown’s raid.

Shackleford was known as a bit of a rascal in his old age.

According to the notebooks, for years everybody in the church thought Shackleford, with his girlie features, was a woman — that is until he was caught “scoundreling and funny-touching a fast li’l something named Peaches.”

The charred notebooks are sent off to researchers to verify Shackleford’s account.

From here, the novel rolls out like a tall tale as Shackleford recounts his formative years in the period leading up to and including Brown’s rebellion.

Shackleford, speaking with the knee-slapping verve of a country boy, tells us he’s the son of a preacher/barber who tried to save his clients’ souls while trimming their locks at a white-owned tavern full of “lowlifes, four-flushers, slaveholders and drunks” in the Kansas Territory.

It’s the American frontier, a rowdy place where dangerous strangers show up out of nowhere to shake things up.

Such is the case when John Brown (and his gang of rifle-wielding men) appears in the town one spring, promising “with the Lord’s blessing to free every colored man in the territory.”

A bar brawl at the tavern ensues and Shackleford, wearing a customary potato-sack and sporting curly hair and fair skin, gets caught in the crossfire. The fanatical Brown, who doesn’t come off as the brightest of fellows in this book, mistakes the young boy for a girl. When an errant bullet causes the death of Shackleford’s father, the boy is literally swept up by the emancipation-crazy interloper and into history ... or so he says.

For the nearly two decades after that, he travels with Brown, posing as a girl named Henrietta.

The tale McBride weaves as Shackleford accompanies the hapless but staunchly mission-oriented Old Man (as he refers to Brown) is wonderfully preposterous, with priceless cameos from near-mythic figures from the period, including the freed-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass is shown here as an arrogant lecher who tries to fondle Shackleford’s “mechanical parts” while spewing high-minded oratory about the oppression of blacks. The great conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, makes a showstopping appearance too, and it is through her that we begin to understand that posing as Brown’s female compatriot may be a matter of survival for Shackleford, a huge improvement over fending for himself as a black male in a hostile nation.

McBride displays the same passion for little-discussed aspects of the African-American experience in his autobiographical account of learning the true identity of his Jewish-immigrant mother in “The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” as well as in his World War II-era novel inspired by the stories of black soldiers in Italy, “Miracle at St. Anna.”

With “The Good Lord Bird” he takes off the history-teacher’s cap and focuses more on the cleverness and sheer sense of adventure required to be black in a society that fails to make a place for African Americans, male or female.

Tyrone Beason is a staff reporter for Pacific NW Magazine.

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