Title: Midnight Rising
Author: Tony Horwitz
Rating: 4.5 / 5
This was a great history book, especially for people who don’t typically read or “like” history. Very readable, packed with primary sources, and a fascinating and important story to boot. I put this book on my to-read list after reading James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and loving the John Brown character. I wanted to know how much was fact and how much was fiction. This book answers some of those questions.
I greatly admire people who have strong convictions and are willing to put themselves on the line for them, partly because I strive to approach that ideal myself and find it difficult to do so myself. John Brown declared in church one day “I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery,” and then followed through impressive way, one that instilled in me not only admiration but affection as well. It was hard to read about his life and not find him a hero, someone whose actions have their own life and are far more significant than most; his insurrection resonates across time like the Biblical story of Samson which he compared himself to. But this book also does a great job at humanizing him and showing his foibles too. The book doesn’t make excuses for his missteps or glorify him inappropriately. It is honest about the way he treated his children and wife and tries not to make excuses. It was impossible for me to read this book and not laugh and shake my head at some of his ideas, statements, and actions. For instance his Constitution included a clause about the commander-in-chief (himself) being able to “tap the treasury as needed for money and valuables,” which I found amusing in light of his many and consistent debts and inability to manage money well. Peter became interested in the book part way through and I started reading it out loud to him; sometimes I’d have to pause in reading so we could have a good laugh at the eccentricities of Old John Brown. For the first time in my life, I was recently within an hour or two of Harpers Ferry; alas, we did not have the means to get there and I was feeling pretty down about it. However, while visiting the Smithsonian, we stumbled across one of John Brown’s “Kansas butter knifes” (one of the 1,000 pikes he had manufactured to put in the hands of freed slaves). The smile on my face in the picture Peter took of me with it is quite radiant. I read a lot, and sometimes the historical can seem like just another story (which it is in a sense). But seeing an actual artifact after reading about it really brings the reality of it home. Peter and I had a good laugh and my heart ached a little with the fondness and respect that I hold for John Brown and what he did.
The book provides rich information about John Brown as well as the state of the nation during his life. It was quite enjoyable to read, and I only left of the last half star because there was a small portion of the book I found a bit unclear. I also wish some things had been expanded on. Overall, though, I thought this book was excellent.