Summary: Nuanced children’s history for a difficult figure.
A couple weeks ago a friend posted on facebook about a new graphic novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was interested and while looking at the author’s other books, I saw a used copy of John Brown: His Fight for Freedom. I had just finished reading the section on John Brown in the new biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight and was interested.
John Brown is a difficult figure and I was interested how he would be handled in a children’s book. (Ted Olsen in a twitter response to this review, suggested that he thought of this an illustrated biography for adults and not a children’s book. Which does make sense. He also suggested that Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War as a follow up book.)
I have not read any extensive works on him, so the sections on John Brown from Frederick Douglass’ biography that I just read and the Harriet Tubman biography that I read earlier this year are my main sources outside of Hendrix’s book.
John Brown was a religious zealot and radical abolitionist. You cannot talk about John Brown without understanding that he felt it appropriate as a Christian to use violence on behalf to freeing slaves that he felt were being held sinfully in slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison was one of the best known abolitionists before the Civil War and editor of the best known abolitionist paper. Garrison recruited Frederick Douglass as a speaker soon after Douglass escaped slavery and was an important mentor for Douglass. But Garrison also believed that because the Constitution was inherently a slave document, that abolitionist were required to not work in politics but only through moral persuasion. Garrison also believe in only non-violent and passive resistance. Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution on at least one occasion. Douglass and Garrison finally separated because Douglass was persuaded that there were elements within the constitution that could be used to end slavery politically and that if political means were not enough, violence could be used.
Frederick Douglass started his own paper in 1847, and that paper eventually explored both political ideas and the idea of violence at least as a means of self defense for Blacks. In the mid 1850s, John Brown was involved in the violence in Kansas between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces. I was somewhat surprised that Hendrix mentioned the 1856 Pottawatomie massacre. In response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery groups, John Brown and his forces killed five pro-slavery settlers. Hendrix’s account says they were brought to a creek and killed by broadsword. It is not specifically said, but I believe from what I have read in other place and what is hinted at in Hendrix account, the five were unarmed at the time they were killed. That massacre was the start of a wave of violence in Kansas.
Because of John Brown’s known role in the massacre, he left Kansas. Eventually making his way to New York to meet with Frederick Douglass. Douglass was sympathetic to Brown’s calls for violence and introduced Brown to others that would fund, fight with, or otherwise support Brown, but Douglass did not believe that what became the Harper’s Ferry Raid was a viable plan. Douglass refused to participate. And while Harriet Tubman was also supportive and planned on participating and partially leading the raid, she became sick and could not participate.
Brown, without either Tubman, who was a strong leader, and who was known among slave communities and who had experience in the area around Harper’s Ferry, and without Douglass who did not have any military or fighting experience, but was a friend, Brown probably should have canceled or delayed the raid.
But he did not. The raid did not go well. And as the book again notes, the first death was of a free Black railroad worker. A train came through the town during the raid and was let go, but the train after getting away got word to Washington DC and military forces quickly put an end to the raid. But this was really the final straw because the other community forces had kept Brown and his men boxed in and prevented their escape with the arms that they had intended to steal.
Brown and several of his men that were not killed in the raid directly, were eventually hanged for treason. It is interesting that the book discusses the fact that Brown was encouraged to plead insanity as a defense, but refused because he believed in his cause.
This is not a light children’s book. Hendrix does not skip over difficult issues because they are difficult. This is a children’s book of history with single illustrations on a page along with text and not a graphic novel format. The visuals of the format leads me to think that the intended audience is around 6-8. But this is not a book that I would suggest to be read without adult interaction. The ethics of violence for a just cause, the reality of unintended consequences, the concepts of secular methods for Christian ends and far more, are concepts that I do not think most kids (or frankly adults) can handle well without discussion.
The art is well done. There are forty pages with an average of about 100 words per page. The book ends with an author’s note that explains his perspective and a short bibliography and further reading. I have not tried reading this with my children because they are only 3 and 4 right now. But I will save it for a later point when they are old enough.
I have no idea what to really think of John Brown after the little about him that I have read. John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John Hendrix did not help that. It presented a complex picture that is often missing from many children’s books; one that probably would make most parents uncomfortable. But complex portraits are what I think the world needs more of. People are not simply right or wrong, good or evil. Complexity is part of all of us, especially as Christians. Many Christians throughout history have done evil because they felt their cause was just, and as Christians we need to see that temptation from childhood as one to be avoided. It is not simple.
John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John Hendrix Purchase Links: Hardcover