John Brown’s Women – Susan Higginbotham

I definitely recommend this engaging and historically fair fictionalized story centered on the abolitionist John Brown’s second wife, his daughters and daughters-in-law. Although we learn about the various Brown children in general, Higginbotham focuses on Mary, on John Junior’s wife Wealthy Hotchkiss Brown, and on the strong-minded Annie Brown. The facts of John Browns life are well known: He had a huge family; he experienced modest successes and abject failures in trying to make a living; he traveled constantly, he was deeply religious and he was radically anti-slavery. Ultimately, he turned to violence as a means of trying to end slavery in the US, first in Kansas, then at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He had four boys and one girl living when his first wife died. Mary bore an additional six girls and seven boys. The Browns were close knit, valued education for girls as well as boys, were hard working and shared strong political and social views that led Mary to support John’s activism and dangerous decisions while writing faithfully and keeping their farm going. In a similarly strong marriage, Wealthy emigrated to Kansas with John Jr. and other family members, along with John Sr. who went in part to consider a move there and in part due to the political climate. The violence between those who wanted Kansas to be a free state and those who wanted it to be a slave state resulted in the destruction of all their property. Some of the Brown’s were involved in killing five pro-slavery men. John Jr. was imprisoned and tortured, then charged with treason. We see first hand how Wealthy handles all their hardships and loss including her care for her husband during a complete mental breakdown. Annie at 15 went with her pregnant sister-in-law Martha to a farmhouse in Maryland to help keep house for John Brown and the men he was recruiting for the raid at Harper’s Ferry. The intent was to make it look like a normal household/farm, not just a household with a bunch of unrelated men. The Black men that joined the group had to be hidden. Annie played a critical role of distracting and redirecting potentially suspicious neighbors. Shortly before the raid, the two young women went home to New York state. This is a fast and satisfying read and captures the unusual and yet ordinary day to day lives of an extraordinary family, in particular the women. John Brown is often portrayed as a caricature. His views and actions were certainly extreme even when presented in a factual rather than a sensational manner. I appreciated Higgenbotham’s decision to show John Brown’s humanity throughout this story, as well as her multi-dimensional portrayal of each of her primary subjects. We often lose women in history. To tell their stories, Higginbotham made good choices on what to include from the voluminous amount information available on the Brown family. This is a novel, with imagined conversations and some characters that are made up, but it was refreshing that nothing central to their lives had to be made up about the women in this piece of historical fiction.

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