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Book Review – Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

April 6, 2012

written by Helen McIver

Tony HorwitzDisclaimer: I am a huge Tony Horwitz fan. I give multiple copies of nearly all his books to friends across the US and several continents: You must read this! 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.

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 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.

Confederates in the Attic cover artUntil now. I was thrilled when Tony Horwitz was chosen as our Rochester Reads author this year, 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. John Brown’s riveting story, however, is much more somber.  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. He also knew he couldn’t free the slaves with a band of only 21 men (5 black) but he was 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, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. During the Centennial Martin Luther King Jr stated “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” Fifty years on we have President Obama, but also have states that do not acknowledge the role of slavery in our Civil War (see Virginia’s Confederate Month).

Midnight RisingMidnight Rising is a compelling historical narrative and a rapid read (I actually read it twice, once because the story just drew me on, 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 polarised the nation. Compromise was no longer possible and the issue couldn’t be ignored. The story is personalized by excellent 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, nor fanatic, though he passionately believed that all men are created equal.

Don’t miss Tony Horwitz while he’s in Rochester on April 9. He’ll be presenting his books Midnight Rising and Confederates in the Attic at Willow Creek Middle School (2425 11th Avenue SE) at 7:00 pm. This event is free and open to the public. Come early as it will fill up fast!

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