Review: John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham

As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin—slavery—abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.

Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.

Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John—and upon her.

Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.

My Review

As with most books about the wives of famous persons, our women spend a lot of time waiting while the action happens elsewhere. Interestingly, John Brown’s Women takes this a little further. They are truly integral to the events, even though they don’t actively participate in them. Without the resilient, supportive Mary behind him all the way, there’s a good chance John Brown would not have had the courage to go on. Mary is not just a wife; she is a personality all her own, and contemporaries recognized that. As a newspaper reporter wrote after meeting her:

Only ten minutes’ acquaintance is enough to show that she is a woman worthy to be the wife of such a man . . . Her manner is singularly quiet and retiring, although her natural simplicity and modesty cannot hide the evident force of her character and strength of will and judgment which have fitted her so long to be a counselor to her husband’s enterprises and a supporter in his trials.

To me, that kind of puts it into a nutshell. Through the perspective of the women in Brown’s life—both his wife and daughters, as well as his daughters in-law—we see a man who is strict but fair and beloved by his family. He is not the fearsome lunatic so often depicted. He is a man devoted to his family but even more devoted to his principles. He is the man everyone turns to for answers. His fight against slavery was honest and genuine, and his family supported his views. Until the end he didn’t necessarily search out trouble, but neither did he shy away from facing down his antagonists. His sons were not quite up to the task but they tried their best; again, whenever possible the wives stepped in and nursed them back to health. Everyone contributed as best as they could.

When it came to Harper’s Ferry, we don’t exactly know what is going on. We know he is going to try to save the slaves. We know people tried to talk him out of it. As news trickles in, we know something terrible happened and many of Brown’s sons and friends were killed. We never get the whole story—only bits and pieces. This is how the women learn about it as well, and though it’s frustrating not to get the details, perhaps it’s more realistic. We really get the feel of the anti-abolition sentiment in the Midwest (and Virginia) at the time, and how these people took their lives into their hands just trying to homestead. This book built an excellent framework to understand John Brown’s world, and gives us a more well-rounded view of the man himself.


Meet Susan Higginbotham

Susan Higginbotham is the author of a number of historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England and, more recently, nineteenth-century America, including The Traitor’s Wife, The Stolen Crown, Hanging Mary, and The First Lady and the Rebel. She and her family, human and four-footed, live in Maryland, just a short drive from where John Brown made his last stand. When not writing or procrastinating, Susan enjoys traveling and collecting old photographs.

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