Age Range: 1800 - 1859
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A docudrama about the insurgent abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859).

With racial conflict once again occupying center stage in the national dialogue, the present day seems especially ripe for a fresh new biographical portrait of the anti-slavery agitator whose scorched-earth campaign in the late 1850s presaged and likely hastened the Civil War. Weaving historical record with his own imaginings of what Brown, his family, and others may have said 160 years ago, Karl, the author of a teen novel, The Toom County Mud Race (1992), chronicles Brown’s three-year war against slavery. He begins with the 1856 incident in which abolitionist Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner is beaten bloody in the Senate chamber by a South Carolina congressman, which serves as prelude to Brown’s battle that same year against pro-slavery forces trying to keep Kansas in their column. The book climaxes with the ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to initiate an armed slave uprising and concludes with Brown’s subsequent arrest, trial, and execution. Karl’s overall depiction of Brown is that of a ruminative, intensely religious family man whose conversation is all but overrun with references to the divine. (“Everything moves in sublime harmony in the government of God…Not so with us poor creatures.”) He is also shown to be remarkably composed in battle and quietly insistent in conversation with such eminences as his great ally Frederick Douglass, who warned him of trouble at Harpers Ferry. Such factors offer a needed corrective to past portraits of Brown tending to paint him as a wild-eyed and ruthless fanatic. The problem is that Karl bends so far backward toward straightforward characterization that he mutes, if not altogether loses, so much of what made Brown colorful and vivid. The result resembles nothing so much as a grown-up version of biographies written for teenagers in which fact and fiction uneasily coexist in a diorama of historical events where surfaces are easier to perceive than the substance behind them.

For a reader who knows nothing at all about John Brown, this is a satisfactory but not altogether inspiring place to start.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61373-633-3
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2016


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