McBride first annoyed me by having his narrator, Henry Shackleford, a young slave in 1850s Kansas describing a person as six hands tall. This is an odd error and I gamely tried to treat it as a joke or a personal affectation illustrating Henry’s character but I never found it amusing or illustrating, it never fit into any pattern more clearly than that of sloppy first draft writing sorely in need of a disciplined editor. By itself one odd choice of words would matter little, but then Henry’s father dies impaled on a splinter thrown up by a pistol shot hitting a door in a scene that teeters unconvincingly between farce and pathos. John Brown, a cartoonish figure who prays for hours and marches for days without need of sleep nor food, kidnaps Henry – or does Brown liberate Henry? – or does Henry go with Brown for no more convincing reason than he needs to for the story to continue? They are later involved in a battle wherein McBride cannot be bothered to keep straight how many ridges and ravines men are fighting on or who is on what side of a river until a final charge clarifies the tactical situation. This could have been a brilliant satire of the absurdities of combat but I could not shake the nagging feeling that McBride and his editors simply did not notice the ambiguous topographical description.
What are we to make of a later scene wherein a slave prostitute seeks sexual punishment from an overseer? Given the character as described to that point, I would say exploitative BDSM titillation that violates consistency of character in setting without artistic justification. There is more base titillation in a drunken Frederick Douglass failing in a sexual assault on Henry. Perhaps it is supposed to be funny that Henry spends most of the book in a dress pretending to be a girl. Perhaps it is supposed to be surrealistically symbolic like Gunter Grass’s boy who never grows up in The Tin Drum. I may never know unless Mr. McBride writes a better crafted draft and someone convinces me to give this story another try. Henry/Henrietta/Onion the boy slave turned girl freedom fighter and satirical observer of his fictionalized times works well in a one sentence summary, but I could not finish McBride’s booklength execution of the idea.