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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 Ö 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 succeedsand 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 timea view that, with home-grown terrorists still at work among us, seems timely as well. A satisfying and promising debut. (First printing of 50,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1995
ISBN: 0-8050-3856-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1995