Site Reading

Sight reading is something about reading music (for which I have no inclination). Site reading is the term I just made up for wanting to read about a particular place after visiting it. And, a forewarning, it’s about to get super nerdy in here (I should probably preface everything I ever say with that statement).

Midnight RisingI just finished a book that I really enjoyed, but it’s not necessarily one I would go around demanding that everyone read. So instead of reviewing it, I wanted to talk about how I came to read Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

Let’s start here: I never really gave very much thought to reading non-fiction books for fun until embarrassingly recently. I don’t mean Jen Lancaster-style nonfiction, I mean reading books on history or science or or culture. In my head, there was a divide between “school” books and “fun” books. This, despite the fact that I generally thought school was fun (right up to the point where I decided grad school was no longer fun and left). Anyway, somewhere post-student-life I realized that I could read books about whatever I damn well pleased, and sometimes that means reading about teenagers in dystopian futures and sometimes that means reading about John Brown.

If you’re still with me, I’ll try to connect that leap. Now that I’m the sort of person that likes to read about just about anything that interests me, I will look for books when I’m intrigued by a particular story. John Brown, the radical abolitionist, was not that story, or at least not the whole story.

My partner-in-crime/fiancé  and I lived in a small town in Kansas for a few years, and while we were there, we made it a point to visit just about anything significant within driving distance (we still do the same now, but our to-see list is longer in Virginia). One of those sites, naturally, was the John Brown museum in Osawatomie, Kansas. To me, the most interesting story told at the state historic site was that of Florella Adair, John Brown’s half-sister, who lived in Kansas with her husband. I’m still kind of obsessed with Florella, and unsatisfied with what I know about her. She was one of the first female graduates of Oberlin College, and she put up her half-brother and his band of men while they were running around (read: killing people) in Kansas, over her husband’s disapproval. Interesting, right?

Anyway, after visiting the John Brown museum, I googled for books and didn’t find anything that jumped out at me, so I mentally filed that one away for another day. Then, just recently, we took a trip to Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, the site of THE John Brown ill-fated raid. Thus, my interest in John Brown – and Florella – was reignited, and I googled again. I added this book to my To-Read list, especially after I realized the author, Tony Horwitz, also wrote Confederates in the Attic (which is pretty awesome).

I think that brings us to the present, where I finally checked this book out of the library and read it. And, I really liked it – it was slow going to get through the beginning, as there were tons of family members to introduce between John Brown’s brothers and sisters, and his own children. Tons. After all that, once we got to the raid, the pace quickened, and the scope broadened. John Brown was neither a sympathetic character nor a fringe lunatic, and the story was well-rounded. Of course, my first question in any historical event is always “what were the women doing?” In this case, the answer was “not much.” It’s a pretty dude-centric story, and therefore a dude-centric book, with unfortunately just a few brief mentions of my buddy Florella. However, Brown’s daughter Annie figures into the story, and in his acknowledgements, Horwitz calls Annie his “favorite figure in the Harper’s Ferry drama.” (That’s “favorite figure,” not “favorite female figure.” Important distinction.)

Midnight Rising is not light-reading, but it’s not overly dense either. Generally, if anyone (Dear J, don’t read this sentence) starts talking to me in military terms about who’s flanking who, I start thinking about what’s for dinner, but the descriptions of the raid are manageable. It helps that I visited the scene just months ago, and could *almost* follow along, though spatial and directional things are not really my forte.

If you’re into this sort of thing – small history lessons, reading about people and places, nonfiction – then I definitely recommend this book. Any other site-readers out there have book recommendations?

(Tangent: this weekend, I picked up a copy of March for 50 cents at a thrift store, because I saw that is was by the author of Year of Wonders – an Amanda-demand that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realized that the author, Geraldine Brooks, is married to Tony Horwitz. Weird, huh?)

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review and if you’re still interested in Florella, I recommend the Adair papers at the Kansas State Historical Society, filled with letters between her and her rather drear and demanding husband. There’s also an excellent book about westward pioneers with a chapter that includes her, as I recall. A Scattered People, by Gerald McFarland

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