Thursday, September 25, 2014

danyelle recommends A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

Some books capture a reader's attention with suspense-filled action, and you can hardly turn the pages quickly enough to find out what will happen next, while others present sympathetic characters that you come to care about.  Still others, render the setting so vividly that you can imagine being there yourself.  Certainly, these strengths are not mutually exclusive, and the books we love to read usually have multiple strengths.  And while Volcano Beneath the Snow does many things well, the thing that makes it stand out in my mind is the remarkable way it engages readers in ideas.

The narrative opens with a speech given by a tall, thin, sunken-cheeked man at a political meeting: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand,' . . . I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . .'" (2)  These words spoken by Abraham Lincoln addressed a mid-nineteenth century crisis for our country, but the ideas they convey are still relevant today, as are the other questions introduced in the six-page prologue and explored throughout the text.

Can a man engage in villainous acts and be a hero? Should man act in strict obedience to the laws, thus supporting and upholding the government, or in obedience to his conscience?  Can violence in the pursuit of moral justice be righteous?   Marrin offers conflicting answers posited by Abraham Lincoln,  Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and of course, John Brown.

Brown grew up at the beginning of the nineteenth century when our country was young, restless, and divided by the issue of slavery.  Marrin addresses the rise of slavery, the terrible cost of the slave trade, and gives equal time to the problems facing the country and Brown's role in them.  (In fact, there are entire chapters when you can forget you are reading about Brown.)

Clashing viewpoints of abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and pro-slavery advocates underscore the complexity of the problem, thereby resisting simplification of this historical chapter into good guys versus bad guys.  And Marrin doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of racism and flawed individuals.  The honest portrayal of Lincoln's views in particular may surprise some readers.

In John Brown, readers meet neither a villain nor a hero, but a man whose life was filled with contradiction.  He had little formal education, was a troublemaker as a teen (bossy, aggressive, and prone to lying), and was fascinated by history.  He was deeply religious, highly opinionated, and "admired for his 'invincible honesty'".  (15)  And most importantly (to this story, at least) he firmly believed he was called by God to liberate slaves, and he embraced the use of terrorist tactics to do it.

Brown's execution does not come at the end of the book, just as his death did not end his influence.  The final sixty pages of the book lay out the chain of events that were triggered by Brown's failed plot at Harpers Ferry and end with the eventual abolition of slavery.

Marrin's conclusion looks at Brown's legacy, citing examples of men who acted on similar beliefs in recent times.  He says, "[Brown] raised thorny questions about the use of violence at a time when democracy seemed ineffective and the road to justice blocked by self-interest, brutality, and racism."--questions readers will ponder long after the last page.  (207)

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
by Albert Marrin
published by Alfred A. Knopf
April 2014
recommended for ages 12 and up

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