Mann’s debut historical novel follows abolitionist John Brown and a pro-slavery advocate, who are on a collision course with history.
In 1856, the issue of slavery painfully splits America. In the Kansas Territory, John Brown considers it God’s plan for him to murder pro-slavery settlers; in Washington, D.C., a Southern representative severely beats U.S. Senator Charles Sumner after an anti-slavery speech; and the fictional Zephaniah Jacobs realizes that, in order to save slavery, he must kill Brown. Zephaniah’s holy quest takes on biblical proportions or, at least, allusions; at one point, his family re-enacts the Old Testament story of the kidnapping of Dinah—except that here, Pawnee tribesmen abduct Zephaniah’s daughter Diana and later convert to Christianity. Some of these biblical parallels might have seemed forced in other historical novels, but here, they fit due to the narrative’s interest in faith and God; both Zephaniah and Brown, for example, see themselves as violently enacting God’s will. The book doesn’t shrink from violence, showing everything from the massacres of Bleeding Kansas to the horrors of slavery to the slaughter of livestock (in which “yards of intestine ooze out”). These elements give the book an almost mythological tone that suits the characters, although this mythic scope may prevent many readers from identifying with or caring too deeply about them. The book sometimes gives in to the temptation to include famous cameos (Abraham Lincoln, Jesse James, John Wilkes Booth). Curiously, the Zephaniah sections are largely narrated by a skeptical character who largely remains a cipher. However, this narrator is only disruptive when he comments on the future or puts history into context; his theory that the Civil War can be laid on John Brown, for example, seems a little narrow. That said, these are only occasional missteps. Mann also includes some stories that initially seem like tangents but that all eventually connect to the main plot; the story of the slave Shields Green, for instance, makes sense when we see him later during the famed Harpers Ferry raid.
A brutal, ambitious and well-researched historical novel.