The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery, by Steven Lubet **

thecoloredheroI 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.

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks *****

 cloudsplitterThis book is a novel based on what truth is available. The story centers on Owen Brown, the youngest and last living son of John Brown. What I was looking for, of course, was information about John Brown himself. However, because he understood the need for secrecy in his movements, considered himself (and usually really was) a hunted man, he did not leave copious journals. In fact, writing was not one of his talents. What he did care about were the 3 million men, women and children shackled to the plantation system, sometimes literally. He was the only white man recorded in history to have been friends (real friends) with Black people, who understandably were deeply suspicious.

Telling it all through Owen’s eyes is a strong device. Banks is a really good writer, and I think this is my favorite among his published works.

The question that hangs in the air for historians interested in this time period, and in Brown in particular, has always been whether he was sane or a madman (and as a history teacher, I have to say that at least one text mentions him only briefly, and comes down strongly on the side of his being a crazy man).

There is one undeniable fact, whichever side one takes: he was the first white man to kill and die for Black men. At that time, and for a long time after, his name carried great respect among Black men and women in the U.S. I am inclined to agree with them.

In these modern times, we know that it is possible to be mentally ill, and yet not be unable to function. I’m willing to bet that most families, if you trace the lines hard and long enough, will have at least one such person. And reading this novel convinced me that this was the case with John Brown.

Owen’s life was not an attractive one. At times, it appeared that their father had deserted the family; he would go away on one religious/political (for Brown, they were inseparable) mission or another, and not come back for years. There were times that the children of the family nearly starved to death, and their lives were not only desperately poor, but beset by constant danger. The stress alone might be enough to unhinge almost anyone.

I think I should leave the story as Banks tells it to the reader. His prose is brilliant and compelling. This is a very long book, but I finished it pretty quickly, because I couldn’t leave this family in danger until I had seen the very end. Banks brings characters alive in a way few writers do. I was a member of the Brown family until the book was over; their struggle became mine, and each poor decision made me flinch and my stomach felt leaden. Doom!

It also left me with the question we can never answer: what if Brown had waited another (roughly) ten years to lead the revolt? Might he have met with greater success?

If you like seeing characters developed well and also like historical fiction when it is done well, this book is terrific. (It is also very large, and heavy. If you have a nook or Kindle and it is available, consider reading it that way).