At first, I was reluctant to pick up this book. Though The Color of Water was useful, it was too long and somewhat thin. Then I delayed because I’m generally not fond of fictional lives of historical characters. I don’t want such things to sway what I know of the truth. But then it went ahead and won the National Book Award. So I picked it up.
For the first part of it, I was pleasantly surprised. The book was. . . funny. Then there was a remarkably poignant couple of scenes involving Sibonia. And then. . . the book went completely off the rails.
The chapter in which the fictionalized John Brown takes Onion (our plucky, overly wise protagonist) to see Frederick Douglass is painfully bad. It just made me angry. Between that scene and another involving Douglass, McBride seems intent on mocking the man. Fine. Pretty much all of our heroes need to be taken down a notch or three, but why this one? And why this way?
Finally, McBride realizes that he needs to get to the moment of truth – the raid of Harper’s Ferry. This is where our narrator is especially too insightful and too involved. At this point, I just wanted the book to end.
As with water in The Color of Water, McBride takes one symbol here, the one that gives the book its title, and asks it to carry so much weight that he renders it meaningless.