Ambitious writing undercut by an equally ambitious political agenda as Jamaican-born Cliff (Bodies of Water, 1990, etc.) reclaims the life of African-American Mary Ellen Pleasant, a co- conspirator in John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. In prose that veers from the lyrical to the polemic, Cliff makes the story of Mary Ellen the centerpiece of a novel that's as much a reprise of the wrongs done to the historically oppressed- -blacks, Jews, native peoples, lepers--as to Clover Adams, wife of the famous Henry. Mary Ellen, the daughter of a daring sea-captain who'd escaped from slavery in Jamaica and a Gullah-speaking mother from the South who'd fled as a young child to Martha's Vineyard, mostly tells her own story in the form of letters written (if not sent) while traveling--letters to wealthy abolitionist Alice Hooper and fellow conspirator Annie Christmas. She recalls her parents; how she met Annie at an antislavery meeting in New England; how her chain of prosperous hotels in California provided not only shelter for runaway slaves but money for John Brown's raid; and how she barely escaped death when that raid failed. Annie Christmas, daughter of wealthy French freed slaves, who'd dedicated her life to revolution, adds to both the story and the political agenda with her own recollections. Now living in a cabin on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana, she has befriended the more symbolic than real inmates of the nearby leper sanitorium--including a descendant of Hawaiian ``feathered kings''; a woman, Rachel, whose family had fled the Spanish Inquisition for the New World; and a hill-woman from Kentucky who'd witnessed a brutal raid of runaway slaves. And to broaden the polemic, Clover Adams's tragic suicide is retold with a feminist slant that blames her father as well as Henry for her death. A potentially great story lost amid too many flights of lyricism and litanies of wrongs.