Book Review – Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
A Review by Helen McIver

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Tony Horwitz. I give multiple copies of nearly all of his books to friends across the United States and several continents: “You must read this!” I tell them.

Even with early reviews warning that his new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War wasn’t the usual Horwitz, I knew I would own a copy, not least for historical reasons. I expected to discover new insights into the complicated man, John Brown, and understand more of our nation’s Civil War. I was not disappointed.
In fact, I was completely fascinated.

One of my grandmothers lived not far from John Brown’s birthplace. The old Post Office had a huge CCC mural of John Brown standing tall in an effort to abolish slavery. As a small child, this imprinted John Brown in my mind as a hero and martyr for a just cause. There was some consternation when I moved south to Virginia and discovered he was considered a terrorist.  I learned the importance of sources, facts and biases in the interpretation of history. John Brown’s story, though, remained incomplete.  Until now.

I was thrilled when Tony Horwitz was chosen as our Rochester Reads 2012 author for his two books Midnight Rising and an earlier book on the Civil War, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Horwitz is a Pulitzer prize-winning author and Civil War buff whose books often include hysterical personal observations. By mixing history with a contemporary update, his books are compelling, informative and entertaining.  In contrast, however, John Brown’s riveting story is much more somber than Horwitz’s earlier works.

We know our textbook history of the attack at Harper’s Ferry (the only Federal armory in the South and a mere 60 miles from the Capitol), the events leading up to it as well as the expedited trial. I, personally, didn’t know much of the how and the why. I certainly had little understanding of the commitment, passion, and dedication of John Brown, who obviously knew he couldn’t free the slaves with a band of only 21 men (5 black).  He was, however, prepared to strike a blow, shed blood against the tyranny of slavery, and hoped this would galvanize the rest of the country.

Using primary sources of personal letters, archives and new material, Horwitz delivers a fresh perspective on a dark chapter in American History.  During the Centennial marking the end of the Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr stated, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”  As we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, we have President Obama; but we also have states that do not acknowledge the role of slavery in our Civil War (see Virginia’s Confederate Month).

Midnight Rising is a compelling historical narrative and a rapid read (I actually read it twice, once because the story just drew me in, and again to absorb more of the interesting facts). Horwitz writes in stunning, vivid detail about events that propelled America towards an inevitable bloody civil war. The raid shocked and further polarized the nation. Compromise was no longer possible and the issue couldn’t be ignored.

Author Tony Horwitz

Horowitz personlizes the story using stunning illustrations (photographs and drawings) that bring the characters to life. Excerpts of personal letters reveal the emotions of Brown, his wife Mary, his sons, and compatriots. I am astonished at how wide his circle of friends and supporters were, including progressives of the era Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Tubman. I was unfamiliar with the role of Bleeding Kansas, nor did I know of the Secret Six, prominent Yankees who supported Brown.

Marine Robert E Lee led the counter attack. Brown’s eloquence at his trial made him a hero to many northerners, and a radical extremist to the southerners. Instead of accepting a defense of insanity, he put the South on trial for slavery with a searing moral indictment. Brown was neither a madman nor terrorist or fanatic.  He was a man who passionately believed that all men are created equal.

Midnight Rising is one of two of Horowitz’s books selected for Rochester Reads 2012.  Please join us next Monday,  April 9th,  at 7PM in the Willow Creek Middle School Auditorium as we welcome Tony Horwitz to discuss his riveting books on the American Civil War.

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