MINE EYES HAVE SEEN by Ann Rinaldi, 274 pages, Scholastic Press, $16.95.
"My pa considered himself Moses . . . when Pa wasn't fancying himself as Moses, he was fancying himself as Benjamin Franklin."My pa had his own constitution. The one the Founding Fathers wrote wasn't good enough for him.
"As far back as 1839 my pa was saying that blood atonement alone could destroy slavery. People said that he was crazy then and they say it now. . . . My pa did as much to spirit the country up against slavery as anybody. Including Frederick Douglass."
The pa that Annie was talking about was antislavery crusader John Brown.
Singing "John Brown's Body" to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" seems very appropriate considering John Brown was in battle most of his life working with the underground railroad. In this novel set in the summer of 1859, he gathers a "provisional army" preparing for an assault on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry sure that the slaves will rally to join the raid.
This story is told by 15-year-old Annie Brown, whose responsibility is to sit on the porch where the raiders congregate serving as a lookout.
But things are not going well for the men. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, black activists who John Brown had counted on for support, withdraw their assistance. The tension with the freedom fighters is high.
But to Annie there is another inner-turmoil; a love/hate relationship with her father that has existed for many years. She feels responsible for the death of her baby sister and her father won't talk about it nor give forgiveness. It's not his way. She carries the anguish and thinks, "Suppose he fails here? Suppose he does worse than fail? Suppose he dies without forgiving?" The reality is like a dark cloud between and over them.
The setting and events are based on careful research by a renowned historical fiction writer. "On a trip to western Maryland in November 1996 in pursuit of research for another novel," Rinaldi said, "I met some interesting people who introduced me . . . to the story of Annie Brown. . . . Like most people, I had never heard of the place (Kennedy Farm). But when I saw that log cabin sitting on that rise in the foothills of western Maryland and read the marker to John Brown's Provisional Army . . . I knew I had a story."
Rinaldi has made pertinent sketches of the men who took part in the raid at Harpers Ferry, including three sons of John Brown and a young man betrothed to Annie. While only three of the 18 men lived through the raid, John Brown was captured and later hung. Ironically the day of his death, that December 2, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech saying that John Brown's effort to free the slaves, was "peculiarlike, being that it was a white man's attempt to get up a revolt among the slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate." Said Lincoln, "We know slavery is wrong but that cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason."
Even in the end, John Brown seemed not to have had the support of the one emancipator, Lincoln.
John Brown was indeed an interesting public figure. He was father of 20 children, seven by his first wife and 13 by a second, one of whom was Annie Brown. He was and continues to be hated and incriminated, yet honored and commemorated. Rinaldi has done an objective study and leaves the reader to the decision of which stand to take.
Rinaldi used several adult reference works, among them the well-known biographies of John Brown by Robert Penn Warren, Oswald Garrison and Richard Boyer. Young adults now have their own version told through the voice of a plucky young woman, John Brown's daughter.
Two other historical fiction pieces of worth:
GREATER THAN ANGELS by Carol Matas, 133 pages, Simon & Schuster, $16.
This is the story of Jewish children who were harbored in France and then Switzerland to protect them from the Nazis. It is a thrilling story of the good people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, who continued to protect the refugees in their homes, even though their own lives were in danger.
THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by James Watling, 96 pages, Dial, $15.99.
Bruchac tells a compelling story based on a true bit of history about peace amid war in early America. In 1777 a Quaker family goes to meeting just as a family of Native American Abenaki descend on their village to wage war in behalf of the English king. Because the villagers bear no arms, they make a strong impression on the Abenaki, who lay down their weapons and place an arrow over the meetinghouse door so that no harm can come to the Quakers.