This novel is narrated in dialect by Henry Shackleford, a young slave who is freed by John Brown, then taken in as a member of Brown’s close band of followers, in the years leading up to Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The twist is that Brown at first believes that Henry is female, and thus begin Henry’s years of dressing and living as a girl.
Sunday’s Lincoln Journal Star (January 5, 2014) included a review of this book by Los Angeles Times reviewer, Hector Tobar. He noted the awkward feeling of the droll, absurd, and funny story resting on the serious history of racism and the fight against slavery. I sensed this same irony, even as I enjoyed McBride’s ability to turn a phrase and reveal sly humor. Describing a prostitute’s flower dress, he writes, “that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas.”
“Henrietta” exemplifies the slave necessary of seldom showing his/her true self. She has much to hide. Henrietta realizes the outsider she is, a very pale former slave with no status, yet considered a good luck charm.
The intriguing title is a colloquial reference to the ivory billed woodpecker, a remarkable bird of the southeastern American forests, now considered most likely extinct. Its distinctive feathers play a role in the story.
I recommend this to people who like to stay on top of annual book prize winners, and generally to those who enjoy rich language. Key to its enjoyment is the reader’s willingness to set aside expectations about how a novel based on such serious events OUGHT to be, and go along for this ride of cleverness and apparent shallowness. Truth is, some pretty deep thoughts lie below that surface. McBride concludes this novel with a brief meditation by Henry on the trees eventually felled by creatures such as the good lord bird, “that it would someday fall and feed the others.” Sounds like John Brown himself.