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Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, the region a battlefield between anti and pro slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an arguement between Brown and Henry's master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes Henry is a girl. Over the next months, Henry conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. He finds himeself with Brown at the historic raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the catalysts for the civil war.
James McBride studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University. His works include the memoir The Color of Water and two novels, Miracle at St. Anna and Song Yet Sung. He wrote the screenplay for Miracle at St. Anna when it was made into a movie in 2008. He is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He is a saxophonist and former sideman for jazz legend Jimmy Scott. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and Barney, the PBS television character. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical Bo-Bos co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. In 2005, he published the first volume of a CD-based documentary about life as lived by low-profile jazz musicians entitled The Process. He is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. (Bowker Author Biography)
*Starred Review* Abolitionist John Brown calls her Little Onion, but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown's renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry. Dramatizing Brown's pursuit of racial freedom and insane belief in his own divine infallibility through the eyes of a child fearful of becoming a man, best-selling McBride (Song Yet Sung, 2008) presents a sizzling historical novel that is an evocative escapade and a provocative pastiche of Larry McMurtry's salty western satires and William Styron's seminal insurrection masterpiece, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). McBride works Little Onion's low-down patois to great effect, using the savvy but scared innocent to bring a fresh immediacy to this sobering chapter in American history.--Haggas, Carol Copyright 2010 Booklist
Publisher's Weekly Review
Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre-Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown's retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. "I was born a colored man and don't you forget it," reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet naive voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl-a mistake he embraces for safety's sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown's violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word "trim" temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him "Onion," their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves ("hiving bees") to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Review
In the turbulent times just before the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown visits the Kansas Territories to free the slaves. In the midst of a gunfight between slave owner Dutch Henry and Brown, a young slave named Henry Shackleford watches his father die. Now freed and under the protection of the wily abolitionist, who mistakes the ten-year-old boy dressed in a potato sack for a girl, Henry maintains this feminine guise as he rides with Brown and his band of volunteers. After becoming separated during a skirmish, Henry finds himself in a Missouri brothel only to rejoin Brown's ragtag group two years later. Brown takes Henry on a fundraising tour back East, meeting with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Despite John Brown's reputation for violence, Henry discovers an old man whose intense passion for the abolitionist cause tends to overrule common sense, proving disastrously detrimental as they travel to Harpers Ferry in 1859. Verdict With its colorful characters caught in tragic situations, McBride's (The Color of Water; Song Yet Sung; Miracle at St. Anna) faux memoir, narrated by Henry, presents a larger-than-life slice of an icon of American history with the author's own particular twist. [See Prepub Alert, 2/25/13.]-Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.