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John Brown's body all but rises from the grave in this energetic, multifaceted treatment by first-novelist Olds. Using the collage approach to historical fiction … la William T. Vollmann and others, the author using short, sharp images, crafts a story at once fact-filled and power-packed. The infamous scourge of pre-statehood Kansas and invader of Harpers Ferry is first seen in the act of self-flagellation on the floor of his Adirondack barn, preparing himself for God's work of inciting a slave rebellion by staging terrorist acts in the South. The initial impression of blood and terrible purpose continues: Brown hates his stepmother to the point of causing her serious injury; he gets his first wife with child so frequently that she dies in labor at the age of 31; he buries three of his young children head-to-toe in the same coffin when they die days apart. Finally, after decades devoted to the anti-slavery cause, he is driven to take up the struggle in Kansas, already bloodied by battles to determine its status as a slave or free-soil state. With his sons as primary agents, Brown massacres pro-slavery settlers, escalating the violence, then returns East to hatch a plan for bringing the bloodletting to slavery's heartland. Aided by substantial (though secret) backing from powerful abolitionist radicals, he takes arms and men to Virginia, fully intending to strike a blow that will spark civil war. By his daring, suicidal seizure of the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry he succeeds--and is content to swing from the gallows knowing that he has forced the issue beyond compromise. Olds's portrait of a zealot's life, peppered with racist quotations ranging from the Founding Fathers to honest Abe, gives a provocative, compelling view of the man and his time--a view that, with home-grown terrorists still at work among us, seems timely as well. A satisfying and promising debut.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1995
ISBN: 0312420935
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt