I don’t know what it says about me that every time my book club picks a historical novel, I finish the book and am like, wow, I learned things and am interested in learning more, but then my book club picks another historical novel and I am like, ugh, not this history crap again. I need to have more faith in my friends, is probably what it says.
I was so against reading this book that I was kind of happy to miss my first meeting due to honeymoonaversary, but then everyone else had to push back the time so much that I found myself reading it instead of all the funner things I had loaded on my Kindle. And for the first lots and lots of pages I was mentally rehearsing my litany of complaints to start off book club — why is the whole darn book written in dialect, what the heck is wrong with basically everyone in this novel, is there supposed to be a plot, I feel like I would like this book a heck of a lot better if I had paid attention in history class.
And, I mean, for the most part those are still valid complaints. Dialect sucks, there’s not a strong plot (but there’s not supposed to be), and after looking up Harper’s Ferry I know that I missed a lot of interesting pieces. But, once I really got into the story, I was interested to see where it would go and what all these crazy people would do.
The frame of the story is that it’s the written account of an oral account of a dude what pretended to be a girl when John Brown “rescued” him from slavery, called him Onion, and made Onion part of his sort of entourage. Onion (I can’t for the life of me remember his real name) gives the reader a sort of behind-the-scenes look at John Brown and his scheming and planning up through the infamous Harpers Ferry
That fine and all, but it gets way better when you realize that McBride’s John Brown is prooooobably not actually anything like the real and actual John Brown. McBride’s Brown is this crazy-pants religious zealot who literally spends so much time praying before every meal that the meal gets cold and his entourage goes off and finds other things to do in the time before the amen. He makes plan after plan after plan but then throws them out the window when God or almost anyone else gives him a sign to make a new plan or go without. And then the end of the book is practically a comedy of errors, with misunderstandings and mistakes that seem like they should be the ruin of the Harpers Ferry plan but then actually things kind of go okay until they don’t.
I was pretty down on this book right after reading it because I just didn’t get it at all, but once I talked about it with everyone and we decided we weren’t really supposed to get it I started to remember it more fondly.
But still, the best part of this book club meeting was the discovery of a John Brown biographer’s website and all the wonderful things going on in that sidebar. You’re welcome.
Recommendation: For people amused by pseudo-history and satire.