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.

Rochester Reads! Save the Date!

Don’t forget to come to the Rochester Public Library for our
Rochester Reads Title Kick Off
– we are promoting the author Tony Horwitz, with two of his books concerning the Civil War: Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising (the story of John Brown). The New Pearl Buttons will be providing FANTASTIC music!

Geraldine Brooks – Book Review

Geraldine Brooks has done it again. Caleb’s Crossing 2011
(I highly recommend ALL of her other books; this one is perhaps most reminiscent of A Year of Wonder. She won the Pulitzer for March (the absent father in Little Women) and her latest was People of the Book. Her nonfiction is also equally stunning: see especially Nine Parts Desire – hugely informative).

Caleb’s Crossing is a brilliant book. Several people immediately came to mind to tell that this is the next book you must/need to read and – there is much to discuss, similar to our Sparrow book review. But this is much less immediately harrowing, although there are still nightmares.

This is 1600s Martha Vineyard, about the first Native American Graduate of Harvard. With a few facts and a single document, Brooks weaves an absorbing story of his tragic but eventful, prophetic life. There are many crossings in this book (intellectual, cultural, social), not least your own. The story unfolds from 1660 onwards through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan Minister, struggling within the confines of a harsh colonial life and religious dictates. Her friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteamauk, of the Wopanaak tribe, leads both to ‘cross’ cultures.

I particularly loved the perspective from different time periods of Bethia’s life. Her courage, her resiliance, her audacity, her commitment, her desires, and her deep understanding make her unforgettable. And she is the fictional person! The research and authorship are exceptional, what I have come to expect from Brook’s work.Incredible history, amazing philosophy, breathtaking rich detail, thought provoking, poignant and timely. Her writing is so engaging, original, and well crafted; this is literature at its best- lyrical and poetic with memories. Brooks often telling haunting stories, which through gripping characters force you to experience their histories which are ultimately our own. Those connections in this story resonate with my Yankee upbringing as well as the desire and denial for knowledge, simply because you are female. The puritanical society that uses religion to assert dominance feels way too close after 350 years.

You also feel Brook’s presence on Martha’s Vineyard as well. There are wonderful nature descriptions and a serene sense of place. The first half of the book takes place here, with the latter in and around a Harvard  you will barely recognize. She writes “I presumed to give Caleb’s name to my imagined character in the hope of honoring the struggle, sacrifice and achievement of this remarkable scholar.”

Jane Smiley said “It is a story that is tragically recognizable and deeply sad….enlightening and involving…”

AND We have a Rochester connection here too in that it appears her husband’s father (Horwitz) was from Rochester!  Tony Horwitz, the son and another amazing historical author,  will be our Rochester Reads Author in 2012. I find this INCREDIBLY exciting as I have read all of his books, given away across four continents both his Blue Latitudes and his Voyage Long and Strange.

Columbus Day

It’s Columbus Day when we remember Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage across the Atlantic to the Americas. He was looking for a new trade route to Asia, and decided to sail due west instead of south around Cape Horn. He didn’t discover the Americas,  people lived here already, but he was the first to publicize the existence and wealth, sparking waves of exploration.  He carried with him a copy of several maps/books which showed the world was round. (For further information read The World of George Mercator, which is a fascinating historical account of maps, although mostly after Columbus’ voyage).  Columbus was turned down twice by the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, until they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada and had some extra treasure.

Columbus sailed with three incredibly small ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. I have seen the replicas and they are smaller than a tennis court. How many people were onboard?? After sailing for nearly a month, they saw a light on the western horizon about 10:00 p.m. on October 11, 1492. Columbus said it was “like a little wax candle that was lifting and rising.” They went ashore the following day, probably on one of the islands of the Bahamas.

Before Columbus died in 1506, he  made several voyages to explore this new route to Asia, but never became a rich man as a result of his exploration.

I also HIGHLY recommend reading Tony Horwitz’s book : A Voyage Long and Strange, which has some wonderful direct translations of Columbus’ diary. Horwitz’s writing style is highly entertaining which makes for very interesting reading.