Raising Holy Hell, by Bruce Olds, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995, $22.50.
The story of John Brown is disturbing in a democracy. We comfort ourselves with the belief that, despite our differences, weare a humane and sensitive society that makes the need for violent actions unnecessary or even insane. Bruce Olds jolts ourcomplacency in Raising Holy Hell, a historical novel about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry on the eve of the CivilWar.
Olds methodically probes the question of whether John Brown actually was insane or merely a political inevitability in an unjustsystem. Was it chemical imbalances in Brown’s brain or the harshness of a slave economy that led to the 15 deaths at HarpersFerry? Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of its patriots. It isits natural manure.” In Olds’ insightful treatment of John Brown, Jefferson’s words nag at us with their kernel of truth.
Raising Holy Hell is a complex novel with a simple format. Olds writes from a variety of points of view. He effectively meldsstatements from Brown’s wife, children and contemporary notables such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and AbrahamLin-coln. A picture emerges of the factors in Brown’s life and prewar society–including mental illness, politics, morality andambition–that finally led to Harpers Ferry. Olds holds the reader’s interest well by using varying perspectives. His poetic touchwith language adds immensely to the complex tale being told.
To understand John Brown, one must understand slavery. Olds presents a variety of perspectives from the more prominentpoliticians of the time, showing that slavery was regarded alternately as a necessary evil and the desirable basis for a genteelsociety, noting that most Americans of the time were willing to share the delusion that the enslavement of blacks was proper ortolerable if confined to the South.
Olds also shows that one man’s business transaction was another family’s cruel heartache. What passed as discipline in slaverywas actually torture of the kind that would seem barbaric even by the harsher standards of that day. After one judge, defendingthe system, made particularly raw and raucous comments about blacks, Brown retorted, “And they call me insane.”
It was said that Brown could awaken a sleeping dog with a steady stare. He was certainly a cold-hearted man, even cruel, buthe loved his family. He had two wives and 20 children, nine of which died before the age of 10. Amid these trials, Brown keptan account book of his children’s transgressions. In a world plagued with evil, his only consolation was an unflinching morality.
In 1855, Brown turned 55 and was bankrupt and depressed. This man who longed to serve God in the most righteousmanner, found himself aging and without good prospects. Then the fight in Kansas between slaveholders and Free Soilsupporters began, and John Brown heard the call of God, beckoning him to his place in history.
Horace Greeley said that Harpers Ferry was “the work of a madman for whom I have not one word of reproach.” Bruce Olds’disturbing but valuable novel insists that we not be so quick to accept or excuse such violence as solely insanity. We must, ofcourse, condemn the violence, but we must also listen to the complaints that fuel its fire.
Joseph F. Sweet