Ongoing struggle indeed.
John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham released in December in the Historical Fiction genre.
Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.
As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin—slavery—abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.
Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.
Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.
Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John—and upon her.
Susan Higginbotham is the author of a number of historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England and, more recently, nineteenth-century America, including The Traitor’s Wife, The Stolen Crown, Hanging Mary, and The First Lady and the Rebel. She and her family, human and four-footed, live in Maryland, just a short drive from where John Brown made his last stand. When not writing or procrastinating, Susan enjoys traveling and collecting old photographs.
In an interview in 1908, Annie Brown, one of the three heroines of John Brown’s Women, said, “People who never did a heroic thing themselves are very particular as to how heroes behave.” This served as the epigraph for my novel, which tells the stories of three strong women associated with the American abolitionist.
John Brown was a controversial figure in 1859, when he went to the gallows, and still is today. He bungled the raid at Harpers Ferry, leading to the deaths of many of his brave young followers and to his own capture and execution. In Kansas in 1856, he directed the murders of five pro-slavery settlers who had been menacing the Brown family and others in the area. He was a loving father and a tender husband. He was an honest man who also misappropriated funds entrusted to him. Thanks to his lesser-known Missouri raid in 1858, eleven enslaved people (plus a baby born along the way) were helped to freedom in Canada.
In short, he was a complex man.
The United States today, unfortunately, does not have much stomach for complexity or nuance. We see things in black or white, with little tolerance for shades of gray, and history is no exception. One side would prefer that students learn nothing about our Founders’ faults, and the other would prefer that we dismiss them wholesale as racist, sexist hypocrites. A post about someone like Robert E. Lee on a Civil War site invariably degenerates into a free-for-all, with one side praising the general as a beau ideal of a Southern gentleman acting with only the purest motives and the other side turning him into a caricature of rascality and veniality.
Things could well get worse. As I write this, there is a growing movement to restrict how history is taught in American schools. Under the guise of banning so-called Critical Race Theory, a concept that has come to mean pretty much any subject parents of the Podsnap persuasion would prefer to ignore, teachers are being threatened with losing their livelihoods if they stray too far from what I call the “Live Love Laugh” version of American history. It’s a version which prefers to gloss over the messy bits, which confuses patriotism with blind adoration. To avoid being censured or fired, some teachers may well be tempted to give in and just teach straight from their textbook, a textbook usually chosen so as not to offend the sensibilities of the larger book-buying states.
And that would be a sad thing. Because not only is watered-down or polished-up history often misleading, it’s boring. And once a student is bored by a subject, he or she may never make his or her way back to it.
Whatever you can say about John Brown, he wasn’t boring. And neither were the many other flawed figures who roam through history—American or otherwise. We owe it to them—and to ourselves—to tell their whole stories, not just those aspects that we might like at any given point in time. Then we can judge whether they are heroes, villains, or, quite likely, those who fall into the vast spectrum in between.
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