I got to hear James McBride speak (and sing, and play saxophone)! You can read about my experience here.
The absolute best thing about this book is the jaunty, whooping, hilarious dialect that McBride ascribes to the Civil War-era historical figure John Brown. Here's a taste, from page 16: “'You bite your tongue when you swear about our Maker,' he said coolly, 'lest by the power of His Holy Grace, I be commanded to deliver redemption on His behalf. And then that pistol you holding there won't be worth a cent. The Lord will lift it out your hand.” McBride's version of Brown (or “The Old Man”) is both a Bible-obsessed abolitionist partial to long-winded prayers and a remarkably cold-blooded killer when it comes to eliminating “that insane institution” of slavery.
The book follows Brown through the eyes of Henry, a young light-complected slave child, who falls in with Brown's army when Brown comes through his town. One minor snag—when they first meet, Brown assumes Henry is a girl because of the long shirt he's wearing, resembling a dress. So, naturally, instead of arguing with a man who seems to have good intentions but may be a few cards short of a deck, Henry becomes Henrietta, or to the Old Man, “The Onion.”
Brown's ragtag, makeshift army of ruffians, rejects, and his own family members follows the Old Man willingly enough, attacking towns and freeing slaves in Kansas and Missouri territories. Some of them are brought up short, however, when Brown unveils a master plan he's supposedly been thinking on for years: a raid of a US armory at Harper's Ferry, next door to the nation's capital, in the middle of Virginia slave country. Tension mounts as the day of the doomed raid draws near, and Onion recognizes with horror how many aspects of the plan go awry, some due to his own negligence. Yet the Old Man will not be deterred and insists they must take the Ferry and demand freedom for the enslaved.
It's always a thrill for me as a lifelong resident of what some would call a “flyover state” to read books set in Kansas. Obviously, the climax occurs at Harper's Ferry in Virginia, but much of Brown's movements leading up to that incident were in places I know and love, including Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas. And if you're tempted to think that this is all ancient history, ask any KU fan what they think of the state of Missouri. The Border War is alive and well, and I'm proud to live on the Free State side of the line.
Bottom line: Read this book, enjoy the sprightly dialect, and Rock Chalk Jayhawk.