I’ve been putting off writing about this for a while. I really, really wanted to love it. I really, really thought I would love it. Why, you ask? Don’t you know me at all?? For starters it was the National Book Award winner for this year and I adored last year’s winner, The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Secondly it beat out my favourite book the year, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner so I was thinking, this must be really good. Then it’s set just before the American Civil War, told by a young black boy who gets caught up in abolitionist John Brown’s insurrection movement. I’m really interested in stories that write back to established narratives from invisible players (women and children and people who aren’t white). Maybe my hopes were too high, but as a colleague said to me, you shouldn’t have to assume the worst to enjoy a book.
So young Henry is a slave who is quite happy living and working with his father in Kansas. That is until John Brown shows up, picks a fight with their owner and accidentally kills Henry’s father. He thinks Henry is a girl and whisks him away to freedom, which turns out to be rather harder and more uncomfortable than Henry’s slave days. Most of the book follows John Brown’s gang in their meandering and often pointless travels, including fights with slaveholders, debates about freedom and religion, and generally just wandering around roughing it. Henry (still dressed as a girl) also ends up working as a helper in a whorehouse and on a lecture tour with John Brown before being involved with the famous attack on the Harper’s Ferry armoury.
On the whole I found the book, like John Brown’s movements, interesting but somewhat pointless. There was so much of nothing happening and the same points being made and unmade over and over again. No one except Henry came across as more than two-dimensional and yet, for me, Henry’s observations and interior world weren’t enough to pick up the slack. There were things I liked about it, don’t get me wrong. McBride gave Henry a great turn of phrase: ‘Quiet as a mouse pissing on cotton’ was one I liked enough to write down. And I liked how Henry’s folksy language peppered his retelling so that everyone he spoke to ended up with having their own language infused with his own voice. But overall that wasn’t enough to lift it out of the ‘pretty good’ category, and I’d hoped for so much more.