How can the last month, weeks, days and hours of a man destined to hang interest anyone except the romantic or perverse? Is it possible to develop the passion of the Harper's Ferry raid without considerable background on the abolitionist movement? Nelson succeeds by having the participants, especially John Brown, speak for themselves through letters and press reports and court testimony. Brown's men all come to life -- the violent Stevens, clownish Thompson, the spiritualist Taylor, the dignified Newby. Nelson avoids loose conjecture about how they became abolitionists without ever doubting their dedication to the cause. The climax is not the raid itself but Brown's controlled righteousness and irony after his capture (which he admitted he could have avoided had he not blundered). The Old Man devastes Governor Wise, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, and Senator James Mason, who come to chastise and interrogate him. Brown knew the importance of his words for posterity and here Nelson projects the larger history. The South hoped to use the raid for a decisive Congressional victory but instead it stiffened the Northern Republicans' warlike attitude. The author goes no further, since his concern is neither recreation of the Brown legend nor heavy historical interpretation, but a pictorial image of Brown and his followers as real personages. This is Nelson's best work: in a craftsmanlike, un-mawkish way, it gathers momentum from the start, and its careful coalition of characters and events is most involving.