I was really looking forward to this biography, that of one of the Black men that fought alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. It seems to have so many of my favorite elements tied together. There’s John Brown, one of my greatest heroes; the anti-slavery campaign that led up to the American Civil War, which is my field; and then, right as the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up speed, we see focus on one of the African-American fighters that was there. What’s not to love? And I had the chance to read it free, thanks to Net Galley and Cambridge University Press. I was pretty stoked.
But one of the ways in which people are disenfranchised is that their history is not recorded. Lubet has clearly given it his best shot, but there’s so much surmise (with the use of “perhaps”, “may have”, “would probably have”, and so forth) and guess work filling in the narrative, along with common information about the time and period that I already knew, that I finally just skimmed to the last chapters, which is where he seems to have some actual information as opposed to vague contours sustained largely by guesswork.
Whether it’s because of this or in addition to it, the pace is slow, slow, slow.
I can tack on a third star—and if you’ve read my reviews, you know I often do—if I can think of a niche audience that would enjoy the title I am reviewing or to whom it would be useful. Here, not so much, and in fact, at least one factual error leapt out and bit me, and I was not even fact-checking. W.E.B. DuBois claims in his biography of John Brown (which is listed in the works this writer includes in his end notes) that the only reason Harriet Tubman was not there was that she was desperately ill and unable to get out of bed. So this work is not only broader than its stated purpose and lacking in the anticipated focus, it is at least partially incorrect. If I can believe either DuBois or Lubet, I’ll roll with DuBois any day of the week. No third star.
One star reviews are few and far between. I reserve those for works that are either so badly edited and or illiterate (generally self-published works) that I just straight-up can’t read them, or else they are grossly offensive, enough so that I think the public will be offended more often than not.
Given the standards above, this work merits two stars. If you decide to read it, do free or at a deep discount unless you have really deep pockets and spend money fairly randomly. You can do that September 16.