Last year, it dawned on me that I simply don’t read enough. I don’t do a lot of things enough (like exercise, or travel, or any of a number of things I want to do but don’t). So last October I bought myself a Kindle. I also had to create a post on Harper’s Ferry, and I found the story of John Brown so compelling, I knew that post had to be about him. So I went ahead and downloaded my first e-book: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.
And I found it brilliant.
It’s really hard to write good, compelling history books. Most of the time, authors simply tell what happened. The last print book I read, The French & Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America by Walter R. Borneman, suffers from this in spades. It’s just a straight, dry retelling of the war, from young George Washington’s encounter with French soldiers along the Youghiogheny River to the French defeat in Montreal and the loss of Canada. Reading that book has so far (for I am still not done) been a chore.
So now some of you may cry “shenanigans!” on this. History, after all, is just a story of what happened. Well, yes, but the elements of storytelling are important whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and one of the biggest elements of storytelling is character. You’ve got to make these people interesting, you’ve got to give the reader enough to make them really care about who these people are, what motivates them, and why. This is how people get invested in the story. Do we care that some guy sailed a boat to the far reaches to find a whale, or do we care that Captain Ahab was a hard-nosed fanatic who was willing to risk his entire crew for vengeance, even though he knew it would not earn him any reward? We care about the story because we care about the character.
Far too many history authors miss this point. Borneman does this: he tells the story of the French & Indian War but does not make the reader interested in the characters involved. A lot on what Lord Amherst did, not a lot on who he was, and the same for his French adversaries, the various colonial commanders, and the hodgepodge native tribal chieftains. A story without character is just a chain of events. It’s a Wikipedia article.
Horwitz, however, succeeds at this in Midnight Rising. He gets into John Brown’s head: his rough childhood, his business failings, his drive and passion, and even the creepier aspects of his behavior (like his notion that he should be Commander In Chief over the entire U.S. government). Because we become invested in John Brown, we become invested in a story, right down to the disastrous consequences.
Horwitz also doesn’t stop with John Brown. He infuses life into most of the characters in the story, from Brown’s extremely sad wife, to his children (forever damaged from their father’s actions), to his followers, to the few slaves he managed to free, to the men who fought back, took him prisoner, and eventually hanged him. All along the path, Horwitz develops these characters, gives them life, and you either love them, or hate them, or pity them, or at least understand them and their motivations.
This tie-in to the people involved is what makes this book compelling. I heartily recommend it to not only fans of American history, but even for those interested in the psychology of fanaticism. There’s a lot in this book that directly translates to today’s terrorism and the dangerously extreme measures we’re taking to counter it.
Big fan. Permanent spot on the “recommendations” page.