Wednesday 26 January 2022

John Brown’s Women by Susan Higginbotham


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Fictional Drama / Fictional Biography

My mother gave me two great gifts: she introduced me to the world of books at a very early age and she taught me to sing in harmony at about the same time. One of the first songs she taught me to sing was John Brown’s Body lies a mouldering in his grave… –most à propos, given that this gentleman is the central character in Ms Higginbotham’s excellent novel, John Brown’s Women.

Some books—or rather some characters—hook you immediately. Young Mary is one of those. Shy and naïve, this seventeen-year-old joins the household of the recently widowed John Brown to help her older sister with all the duties that go with managing a home and five children. Mary has few expectations of life: she knows she is not particularly pretty, nor is she well-educated or witty or charming. She definitely does not expect Mr Brown to take any interest in her—he’s a handsome man who, by all accounts, was very fond of his deceased wife. So she joins the household determined to do what she does best, namely quietly get her work done.
But John Brown does notice Mary. When she does not hesitate to help one of the runaway slaves Brown helps smuggle north, something sparks between them. And he quickly realises that Mary may be innocent, but she is also  loyal and resourceful. To Mary’s surprise, he proposes. He also offers to help pay for extra tuition for her to fill in some of the blanks in her so far very sketchy education. I think that is the moment when Mary starts falling in love with him, even if she never thinks of it as love: to her, marrying John Brown is the sensible thing to do—albeit all those children are a bit daunting.

Ms Higginbotham paints a wonderful portrait of Mary Brown. She is naïve yet wise, she is at times full of insecurities but also quite certain of what is right and what is wrong. Like most women of the time, Mary’s life is one of making do, of coping with her husband’s bankruptcies, of making ends meet, of somehow setting one foot before the other. And John, well he is there too...

Ms Higginbotham’s John Brown is not only a devoted and tender husband. He is also a loving, if demanding, father. He sits through nights at the bedside of his sick children, he prays for them, takes care of them. His religious views are stark—he has quite the Puritan streak—but he is also a man filled with love for his fellow man, no matter the colour of his skin. For John Brown, slavery is an abomination and it is his hope that somehow he will be given the opportunity to rid the world of it. Mary agrees: like John, she has black friends and feels almost more at home with them than among her peers.

There are few heroics in Mary’s life—beyond that of coping with the sheer weight of tasks that everyday life consists of in the 19th century, especially with a dozen or so children. There are no action scenes, no nail-biting scenes—beyond realising that at some point things will end badly for John and Mary, what with the body that lies a mouldering in the grave. And yet Ms Higginbotham’s prose is so addictive it requires an effort to set the book down to do mundane things like cooking or taking the dog out. I find myself thinking about Mary all the time. I am overcome with a desire to find out more about her and her world, be it the life of Fredrik Douglass who pops by in a cameo portrait or the water cure Mary takes to restore her health.
 John Brown is fortunate in that he has more than one woman in his life, hence the book’s title. Other than Mary, John’s daughter-in-law Wealthy (who shocks Mary by describing, rather casually, that she and her husband, John Jr., are planning on having only three children. Mary doesn’t even know one can plan such things…) is given a voice as is Annie, one of his daughters. Ms Higginbotham breathes life into both these young women—and in particular to the harrowing events in Kansas in the 1850s as witnessed by Wealthy. John Brown’s daughter-in-law is an educated, modern woman, brave enough to stand by her husband when the life they’ve built for themselves in Kansas crumbles into bloody dust. Wealthy is as convinced as her husband and her father-in-law that slavery is wrong, a vile evil that must be stamped out. In difference to Mary, who also shares these opinions, Wealthy will see first-hand what happens when those who have financial interests in upholding slavery resort to violence to keep the abolitionists at bay. In Kansas, they succeed—for a while.

Like Wealthy, Annie becomes directly involved in John Brown’s activities. Wealthy and Annie may be in the thick of things in a way that Mary never is but despite this, to me it is Mary’s voice that lingers. It is her stoic acceptance of the tragedies that befall the family, her constant belief in her husband’s cause—and in him—that carries the book.

Eventually, a frustrated John Brown concludes that if he wants to do away with slavery, he’ll need to do more than fight back against those who advocate slavery. He will need to take the fight to the slaveowners, using violence to show them the errors of their ways. John Brown in Ms Higginbotham’s depiction manages to hold on to his dignity and his faith right up to the bitter, bitter end.

As I close the book, I can’t stop myself from singing the song my mother taught me:
John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in his grave, 
John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in his grave,
 John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in his grave
but his soul goes marching on.
And what a soul it is! 

Thank you, Ms Higginbotham, for introducing me to John Brown and his women. Most of all, thank you for what must count as one of my best reading experiences in 2021. I will never hum that song again without thinking of John, of Mary, of all their children, their travails, all the loss and pain they suffered, and, perhaps most of all, their burning conviction that what John was doing was the right thing to do, no matter the risks. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed


  1. Thanks for the wonderful review. I adored this book and getting to know the family of John Brown.


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