Barnhart (The Big Divide, 2013) offers a YA novel about faith and courage, inspired by the true story of an immigrant who joined Kansas’ anti-slavery cause during the Civil War.
Former Kansas City Star television critic Barnhart previously published a travel guide to Civil War sites in the Missouri-Kansas region. This likable, teen-friendly novel ably resurrects a historical figure who participated in the abolitionist struggle there: Anschl (aka “August”) Bondi (1833–1907). Barnhart acknowledges his debt to two obscure works: Bondi’s posthumously published 1910 autobiography and Border Hawk, a 1958 novel by Lloyd Alexander. The story opens in Bondi’s native Vienna in 1848, with the 15-year-old fighting for freedom from despotic Prince Metternich. When his family sails to America, the same revolutionary spirit sparks his objection to the hypocrisy of slavery in the land of liberty. After a spell on a Texas riverboat, Bondi moves to Kansas Territory, a disputed slave region, to stake a claim and help his friend Jacob run his store. The biographical rundown can be somewhat tedious, but the pace picks up significantly at the halfway point, as Bondi meets famed abolitionist John Brown and his sons and war thunders closer. Although he feels uneasy about Brown’s methods, he admires his dedication to abolition: “We are fighting on the same side. If I do not agree with you, I do not judge you,” he reassures Brown. This is representative of the simple yet believable dialogue throughout. Moreover, Barnhart sets up a strong metaphorical connection between Bondi and the slaves, whose rights he later fights for in the Union Army’s Fifth Kansas regiment; because he experiences anti-Semitism himself, Bondi empathizes with the slaves’ persecution. Meanwhile, Jewish rituals provide a rich symbolic structure for Bondi’s coming-of-age journey. Reunited with his parents in Kansas, the family celebrates a Sabbath meal together. His wedding to Henrietta Einstein adheres to Jewish custom, and when he assumes he’s dying in battle, he recites the Shema, the ancient Hebrew declaration of faith. Maps (not seen) and a black-and-white photo of Bondi make this novel a potential supplement to U.S. history studies at the middle school or high school level.
An accessible, historically rigorous tale.