McBride's depiction of John Brown is fascinating. His greatest trait is his blind faith. But his blind faith is also his undoing. Believing that he's getting messages directly from God deafens him to the advice of his companions. You know the story is going to end badly for him. So listening to it you're begging him to listen, just once, to the advice that will make his plan succeed. That's the backbone of the novel. John Brown is surrounded by people with weaker convictions than him, who end up following him, for all the right reasons, to their own doom. He's a really tragic hero, who fails at his plan, but ends up making a difference through martyrdom.
If I were a history teacher, I'd use this book to make my students care about the boring stuff that led up to the Civil War. I'm not a fan of the Civil War, despite plenty of great movies and books on the subject. Let's face it. It's a national embarrassment. Too much Civil War is like having a loaded diaper shoved in your face. And yet, I found myself staying up late doing research about what set the stage for the Civil War because of this book: Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, Mexican-American War, Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas... the battle for balance between slave states and free states for their respective votes in Washington D.C. None of these are mentioned in the novel, but I found myself spending hours reading up on them. And following the timeline of the novel: homesteading and the politics of granting land to encourage westward immigration from the big cities where unemployment was causing it's own difficulties. After John Brown failed, the south mustered up militias to prevent slave rebellions, which in turn gave them a military advantage that the north took years to catch up to. There are a great many interesting social dynamics alluded to by this telling of the botched raid on Harper's Ferry. Suddenly I care about a part of US history that never held my interest. James McBride finds sympathy and flaws in all these different characters at odds with one another. Everyone has warts, but you come to understand their humanity. You start to understand the way people thought at a different time and yearn for them to see the light. It's really engaging. And the gem of it all is the trick of telling it through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who is just trying to save his own skin. This character's commentary on the more important historical stuff clashing with his self-preservation is hilarious.
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