Josh Connors lives in the 19th century; well, not literally, but he might as well. The eighth-grader is a resident of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, a little town whose stock-in-trade is the fact that in 1859 a preacher-turned-revolutionary attempted to capture the Union Army ammunition depot housed there in order to precipitate a slave rebellion. That man was the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) John Brown.
This historical link is more than an idle plot device in the haunting new novel for teens, The Night I Freed John Brown. Author John Michael Cummings cleverly draws parallels between the fanatical Brown and his loyal sons, and Josh’s dysfunctional family. Josh’s father, Bill Connors, is a beaten, bitter man, and everything in his life reflects this, from his lack of pride in himself and his home, a period house overgrown with trees, trash and weeds, to his hateful, almost evil treatment of his wife and three sons.
Josh’s involvement with the well-to-do new neighbors, the Richmonds, triggers a reaction in his father that makes his previous treatment of the family seem mild, and his subsequent interaction with his ex-con cousin Ricky and the new priest at St. Peter’s down the block makes things even worse. His decision to defy his father and appear as one of John Brown’s sons in a play sets off a chain of events that threatens to tear his family apart. A happy ending doesn’t appear very likely.
The Night I Freed John Brown succeeds on many levels; it’s a deeply affecting story of a young man’s efforts to break free from an abusive parent, a look at life inside a national historic site and something of a mystery to boot. Cummings brings out the all too often ignored point that sometimes parents don’t tell kids everything, and that ignorance can alter how we see things. Finally, it subtly, but firmly, tells us that we have to make our own happy endings, and that life will go on, whether we like it or not. That’s quite an achievement for any book, regardless of genre.
James Neal Webb’s favorite historical site is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.