A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery


Book Information

Knopf Books for Young Readers April 2014
Social Studies Curriculum

"Abraham Lincoln called respect for the law America's 'political religion,' a sacred trust passed down through generations...Others thought the opposite: there was nothing sacred in the law.  For Henry David Thoreau, a well-known author of the mid-1800s, people must act according to their own ideas of right and wrong, and disobey laws they think unjust.  'Is it not possible,' Thoreau asked, 'that an individual may be right and a government wrong?'""[John] Brown inspired good and evil.  While rejecting violence, Eugene V. Debs, a twentieth-century labor leader and five time...presidential candidate called him 'history's greatest hero,' one who 'set an example of moral courage and of single-hearted devotion to an ideal for all men and for all ages.'  Mary Harris Jones agreed.  A zealous union organizer, she was also kind and gentle, thus her nickname 'Mother Jones.'  She idolized Brown.  In the early 1900s, bosses cringed when Mother Jones denounced their greed, calling her 'John Brown in petticoats.'  African American poet Langston Hughes wrote on the hundredth anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid: 'John Brown's name is one of the great martyr names of all history and the men who fought with him rank high on the scrolls of freedom.'""Yet to many others," author Albert Marrin points out, "Brown was (and is) 'the Father of American Terrorism,' a liar, a criminal, a fanatic who would have destroyed a nation to achieve his ends."  As we learn, more recently John Brown was the role model for the Protestant minister who murdered a doctor outside a Florida abortion clinic and for Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 children and adults.What a powerfully amazing piece of storytelling this book is!  Through his incorporation of historical philosophical thought into the story of a man bent on ending slavery at any price, Albert Marrin shares the words and deeds of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abigail Adams; of the Koran; of Olaudah Equiano and Prudence Crandall and Toussaint L'Ouverture and Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass; of David Walker, Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker, and many others.It is upon the foundation of this philosophical thinking that the author lays out the path John Brown traveled in seeking his ends, and he lets us draw our own conclusions as to where we might have stood, had we lived back then, and where we might position ourselves if and when we encounter a situation today that involves someone breaking the law in the belief that the law is morally wrong.(I'd love to see adolescent readers of this book going on to investigate and then share their views on the actions, for example, of Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg.)There are so many connections here to related historical issues, and books.  For instance, there is one point at which John Brown raids a farm in Missouri and escapes with an enslaved, pregnant couple, and their offspring, who had been on the verge of being torn from one another and sold off to multiple buyers.  Where does John Brown take them?  To Windsor, Ontario.  From Christopher Curtis's ELIJAH OF BUXTON, we know that Ontario was not far from a community for escaped slaves.  In reading about Henry David Thoreau's ties to Brown, I am inspired to go back and re-read John Porcellino's great graphic novel about Thoreau."Americans would witness the [John Brown] trial through the eyes of the press.  It was, we may say, our first nationwide media event.  Brown understood the value of propaganda."When author Albert Marrin wraps up the action in Brown's seizure and loss of the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, we still have one-third of the book to go.  This essential, last portion of the book investigates the pivotal role that the failed raid and John Brown's subsequent trial plays in bringing about the Civil War and the zeal with which so many then fought in his name.

After reading A VOLCANO BENEATH THE SNOW, it seems impossible to over-estimate the impact of John Brown's raid on the inevitability of the U.S. Civil War and the ending of slavery in the U.S.  It took but eighteen months beyond Brown's hanging for the Civil War to begin.  Particularly because of that impact, this is a story whose telling is long past due.Within this powerful tale, there are significant lessons in information literacy.  The author keeps the story rolling while clearly identifying varying points of view and -- so importantly -- points out where and how some aspects of the story of John Brown have long been fictionalized.On so many levels, this is a truly distinguished and essential piece of American history storytelling.

978-0-307-98152-3  256 pagesRecommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA

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