Book Corner: John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham

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.

I have to confess, I knew little about John Brown beyond the song when I started this novel. It demonstrated to me how much my knowledge of American history is seriously lacking. All I knew of John Brown comes from the song about his body ‘a-mouldering in its grave’. I knew he had something to do with abolitionism, but to what extent and what he did to merit the song about him, I was sadly unaware. I had heard of Harper’s Ferry, but hadn’t realised how significant an incident it was,, nor what spark it ignited that would burn into the American Civil War.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham tells the story of John Brown and his family through the eyes of three women; his second wife, Mary, his daughter-in-law Wealthy and his daughter Annie. Not merely spectators, these three women played active roles in the family’s mixed fortunes and endeavours against slavery. This is the story of a family living in an emerging nation, trying to build a family and farm whilst also fighting against that most abhorrent of practices, slavery. John Brown appears to have been one of those men who was steadfast in his beliefs and managed to draw in those around him.

John’s family, with his first wife and then with Mary, was large and at times disparate, often living in different states, but they were always close. And it is this closeness, often facilitated by Mary, that draws them into the conflicts in Kansas, and later at Harper’s Ferry, that saw the family devastated by loss. John Brown’s Women: A Novel tells their story in a sensitive, thought-provoking manner, that will draw the reader in from the very beginning. Mary’s compassion and John Brown’s quirks provide a fascinating insight into this famous family.

Mary heard someone unbolt a door, then a face appeared, lit by a skylight in the room. It belonged to a girl who was probably about Mary’s age and, to her immense surprise, not all that far off from her color. There were no shackles, and the girl’s calico dress, though too thin for a Pennsylvania winter, was perfectly ordinary, even pretty. “This is Miss Day, ”Johnny said to her. “And this is Josie.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Johnny said you needed a warmer dress.” Mary displayed the one under her arm. “If you let me try this on you, I can cut it down and have it ready by the morning.”

“That’s kind of you, missus. But ain’t no need for you to do the work. I’ve been sewing since I was a little bit of a thing. Sewed for my mistress, and she was right particular. If you bring me a needle and thread and shears, I’ll whip this out in no time. It’ll pass the time here too.”

“All right.”Mary looked around the room. It was small but adequately ventilated and supplied with a feather bed and heaps of warm blankets. Clearly, this space had been the result of careful planning. “How long have you been  .  .  . escaping?”

“Lord, miss, I’ve lost all track of time. Been a good two months, I guess. Started out in Maryland.”

“What made you decide to run?”

Josie looked in John Jr.’s direction and shook her head.

“John, could you get my sewing things so I don’t have to go up and down this ladder again? You know where I keep them all.” John Jr. obeyed. When she and Mary heard the sound of his feet descending the ladder, Josie said, “Master was looking at me the way he looked at all of us girls when we started getting a shape to us, miss. I knew he’d be doing more than looking soon. So I lit out to a place I’d heard about, and here I am.”

“It must have been hard leaving your family.”

“Ma died years ago.”

“Your father?”

“You might say Master is my father, miss.”

There were so many layers of awfulness here, Mary could hardly unpack them. Josie shrugged. “That’s the way it is, miss. At least in my place. Some masters leave us girls alone, but others don’t. If a girl complains, if she’s fool enough, she gets beaten or sold to someone even worse. Or both.”

Mary tried to imagine what “even worse” might be and decided to stop trying.

Over the next day or so, Mary visited Josie as often as she could without being too conspicuous about it. Josie redid her dress so wonderfully it almost looked pretty—indeed, she put Mary’s sewing to shame—and it was a good thing she was quick about it, for Mr. Brown came home shortly afterward. The next evening, he left on another trip, with Josie—as John Jr. told Mary later—concealed beneath some hay, bound for Ohio. Mary had sent her off with her warmest shawl, knowing she could soon knit herself a new one.

A few days later, Mr. Brown returned from his journey. The morning after his arrival, he caught Mary alone at her spinning wheel. “Miss Day, John told me that you helped with the delivery the other day, and you gave away your shawl and dress.”

Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, John Brown’s Women: A Novel shows America’s struggled with its identity and ethos in the mid- nineteenth century. And the extent of the research undertaken by Susan Higginbotham to produce such a novel is evident in every page. From the methods of farming, to new medical treatments and the historical events themselves, the author’s descriptions are replete with detail and serve to transport the reader back in time.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel is an endearing read, giving the reader an insight into the lives, loves and tragic losses that the family Brown had to endure. Susan Higginbotham allows you be a fly on the wall, watching the tragedies and hardships, that the family had to go through, but also showing you their strength and resilience, and how much of each they took from each other. The strength of John Brown’s convictions resonate throughout the family and its generations.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham takes you on an emotional rollercoaster – you will need tissues, I can guarantee it. I read the last few chapters through eyes streaming with tears.

For anyone interested in life in 19th century American, whether on a social, political or simply entertaining level, I cannot recommend John Brown’s Women: A Novel highly enough.

To buy the book:

John Brown’s Women: A Novel is available on Amazon in the UK and US.

About the author:

Susan Higginbotham’s meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog, History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham. She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Maryland with her family.


My Books

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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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