Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Review: Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America
Evan Carton
copyright 2006
Free Press

As I began this book, a paragraph on page x, in the "author's note" section scared me and made me wonder if this is the type of non-fiction writing I'm really interested in reading. The last sentence describes how he handles situations that have very little historical documentation to describe them : " I deriver the voices, ideas, and feelings of the historical actors as closely as possible from surviving letters and from contemporary third-person accounts of their character and style."

My immediate thought was "Oh-oh. He's making up parts of the story to fill out the book" and it reminded me of a past book that did so and that I did not enjoy.

Once I began reading this book, however, I forgot that unnecessary concern. Mr. Carton writes in a very fluid, narrative-like style that is easy and enjoyable to read. He tells the story of John Brown's life and death in a terrific, descriptive way that grabs the reader's attention and holds it.

I really did enjoy this biography of Brown and the life he lived from his childhood through those last days in a Charlestown, Virginia jail. The influences of his father, the church and the death of his mother during his youth are all described in this book.

Carton continues this story by looking at Brown's life as a young man, and then as he matured. He praises Brown for his work ethic and the reputation he built in Pennsylvania, but does not hesitate to criticize Brown's mistakes and even, at times, hypocrisy, regarding his feelings towards his family.

Brown's development from someone who hated slavery but took no actions upon those feelings into an aggressive anti-slavery crusader is a big part of the story and book, as it should be. Brown gradually decided that mere talk was not good enough, a feeling that took hold in the early days of "Bleeding Kansas" in the mid- 1850's when Brown was in his fifth decade alive. 

The affects that Brown's beliefs and actions had on his family are another theme throughout this entire story.

I will admit that I did not check the notes on this book often, as it would have proved disruptive to the enjoyable reading I was pursuing, but the author does provide source notes for each chapter, making it possible to determine how much of his material came from historical sources and which parts where ones he filled in to the best of his ability. I wish the notes used the numbers in subscript form for each note instead of a page number and first few words of a quote, but that was not a big deal at all, just a minor preference that I have. 

Patriotic Treason is a very enjoyable, informative book, giving a wonderful account of John Brown's life, what he believed, what he did, and why he had those beliefs and took those actions. I definitely recommend this for anyone interested in the coming of the Civil War and/or the history of slavery and abolition.

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