As I continue my own journey into American history, focusing on the early 19th century, it's been a joy to read the work of other authors like Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie, per my review on their work last week. For me, both non-fiction and historical fiction books on early America have helped me in world building and in writing in the "character" of the period. Crafting one's work according to period is vital in what I do as a historical fiction writer.
This week, I'm delighted to share a blog written by author Susan Higginbotham all about her novel, John Brown's Women. John Brown--America's radical abolitionist who eventually hanged for attempting to incite a slave revolt. What fabulous material Higginbotham has upon which to base a story. So, with pleasure, I introduce her along with John Brown's Women--in her own words.
John Brown's Women
by Susan Higginbotham
As a biographical novelist, characters tend to find me, instead of my finding them, and Annie Brown, the first surviving daughter of John Brown from his second marriage, found me a few years back. After years of living in a history-barren section of North Carolina, I moved to a town in Maryland that's just a few miles from Harpers Ferry, though as far as I know John Brown never passed through it. I picked up Tony Horwitz's masterful account of the raid, Midnight Rising, and was fascinated by the story of Annie, who served as her father's lookout on the farm he rented in preparation for the raid. Much to my irritation—for I was facing a deadline for my previous novel, The First Lady and the Rebel, and didn't need any more distractions—researching Annie soon began to command all of my free time (i.e., time not on the day job).
Thanks to Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, whose biographical study of the women in John Brown's family, The Tie That Bound Us, I consulted early on, I had little trouble finding information about Annie—it was just a matter of tracking down the primary sources she cited and reading them for myself, as I prefer to do. As I did so, two other women found me as well—Mary, Brown's stoic, quiet second wife, and Wealthy, who was married to Brown's unimaginatively named oldest son, John Jr. Having finally handed in The First Lady and the Rebel, I could give the Brown women all my time and attention, and ultimately, all three found their way into my novel.
Annie, Mary, & Sarah Brown
As I researched the women, I learned any number of tidbits, many of which I could not work into my novel but nonetheless enriched my understanding of the characters. I learned that Wealthy, who had attended Grand River Institute in Ohio with her future husband, had worked briefly as a teacher before her marriage, had studied shorthand after her marriage, and was very fond of cats. I learned that Mary, who with her family trekked by wagon train to California during the Civil War, delivered babies after she settled in California. I learned (rather to my dismay during a pandemic) that Annie was a fervent anti-vaxxer. I read charming letters between Wealthy and her husband about the weaning of their two-year-daughter, on whom both parents doted. I read heartbreaking letters by Annie about her unhappiness living with an alcoholic and erratic husband in an isolated area—an area she had chosen in hopes of keeping him away from the temptations of saloons. I read Mary's reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation: "God bless Abraham Lincoln and give God the glory for the day of Jubilee has come." Sometimes I felt an intruder for having learned so much about these women, but most of the time I wished I could have found out even more.
There were other Brown women I would have liked to have spent more time on as well. Ruth, John Brown's oldest daughter, dearly loved her father and wrote eloquently of him, but she also wrote rather catty letters to Wealthy (also a schoolmate at Grand River) about Mary, her stepmother. Sarah, who was only thirteen at the time of her father's execution, lived an independent life as a unmarried woman. She worked at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and taught English to Japanese immigrants at a time when xenophobia raged. A photograph of her as an older woman shows her dressed in 1860s garb, gamely reenacting her journey west for a local commemoration in 1912. She was suffering from cancer at the time.
I always have a hard time parting from my characters when I finish a novel, and I found the leave-taking particularly difficult this time. I suspect that even though I have moved on to other projects, I'll never be able to get these extraordinary women out of my mind.
About the Novel
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.
All About Susan!
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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