Raising Holy Hell

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On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, leaving fifteen people dead. Viewed in the North as a saint of freedom and in the South as the devil incarnate, Brown was a visionary who not only foretold but made inevitable the bloody apocalypse of the Civil War. An intricate mosaic of alternating narrative voices, Raising Holy Hell is an explosive, multitextured evocation of the prophetic madness of the man who saw an America damned by the ...

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On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, leaving fifteen people dead. Viewed in the North as a saint of freedom and in the South as the devil incarnate, Brown was a visionary who not only foretold but made inevitable the bloody apocalypse of the Civil War. An intricate mosaic of alternating narrative voices, Raising Holy Hell is an explosive, multitextured evocation of the prophetic madness of the man who saw an America damned by the sin of slavery.

Employing a provocative, wide-ranging collage of literary media and fictional devices, Raising Holy Hell creates a colorful, multi-textured evocation of both American slavery and of its most devout and deadly foe--John Brown, the visionary who not only foresaw, but made inevitable, the bloody apocalypse of the Civil War.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A brilliant first novel."—The Nation

"Portrays vividly episodes in Brown's life that have little do with his place in American folklore. Raising Holy Hell avoids judgment and relishes ambivalence. Olds presents history not as a narrative, but as the combination and conflict of fragmentary, individual perceptions. This ambitious novel raises questions about how a life can be represented in writing, and argues for fiction's place alongside conventional biography."—Times Literary Supplement

"Mr. Olds succeeds admirably . . . The book's achievement is that it forces us to confront John Brown not only as a symbol, but as a human being. Mr. Olds has taken some substantial risks and has confronted tough, serious issues in an evenhanded fashion."—The New York Times Book Review

"An elegant fictionalized biography . . . reminding readers of the racism that has always driven America's history. Beautifully written: full of poetic language, internal rhymes, and carefully constructed passages."—The San Jose Mercury News

"A complex and disturbing portrait of a zealot . . . Exposes the individual and institutional bigotry of an entire political system and indicts our Founding Fathers. An exceptional novel—dark, intense, and provocative."—Lexington Herald-Leader

"This virtuosic, complex first novel . . . portray[s] not only John Brown, but . . . the very process by which history, and heroes, are made. Olds has written a dazzling novel various in its viewpoints and rich in its implication. . . . Invigorating reading [that] loots history to make art . . . Extraordinary."—The Boston Book Review

"The best sort of historical fiction . . . A memorable portrait of a man who believed himself called to redeem America from its Original Sin."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Olds is an enormously inventive interpreter of history and character. He is also a daredevil stylist. The presence of his prodigious intelligence is felt on each page. He raids sacred arsenals. He wields irony like an anvil. His vocabulary is as vociferous as his opinions. He writes, one might say, like a man possessed."—The Washington Post Book World

d"Madman, terrorist, or saint? In Raising Holy Hell, Bruce Olds gives us a John Brown who is something of all three . . . a cut-and-paste monument to the interpenetration of fact and fancy in historical legend . . . Vivid and convincing . . . Powerful."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"An act of historical recovery and cultural exorcism . . . vividly drawn . . . with brutally empirical prose [of] ferocious beauty. With its difficult portraiture, complexities of character, and the dozen species of violence at its heart, Raising Holy Hell makes emphatic a distinctly American darkness, the specific horror some pursuits of happiness entail—and for whose lawlessness there is no apparent alternative."—The Boston Globe

"[An] impassioned first novel. . . . John Brown's body . . . is brought electrically to life . . . in the author's tumbling kaleidoscope [with] a breathless pace exactly suited to [Brown's] meteoric and fated career . . . An exciting drama." —The Miami Herald

"Fiery [and] provocative . . . A tour deforce performance, comparable to but even more ambitious than Michael Ondaatje's landmark The Collected Works of Billy the Kid . . . Wildly successful."—The Kansas City Star

"A riveting portrait of a monomaniac . . . [Raising Holy Hell] casts a spell so binding that the reader becomes entangled in its intense emotional web. In plowing up the ground over John Brown's body, Olds has exposed the roots of modern racism. . . . Dramatic and disturbing."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"A brilliant novel about the complexities of hatred . . . Its stunningly original narrative method speaks with uncanny relevance about our present era . . . An important and compelling novel."—Robert Olen Butler

"OIds can be both dazzling and overwhelming . . . Doesn't necessarily provide all the answers, but does raise some great questions . . . Imaginative and unusual."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A creative and compelling first novel. Great storytelling at the hands of a skilled and poetic writer."—The Star Ledger (Newark)

"Olds offers a fascinating study of slavery in the United States and of one of its most ardent opponents . . . A remarkably complex portrait of a paradoxical zealot."—Publishers Weekly

"In Olds's fiery, compelling new novel, John Brown's body . . . is up and about wreaking havoc. This is no ordinary telling . . . Bitterly eloquent."—Library Journal (starred)

"A devastating vision of an uncommon man . . . Old's haunting first novel plumbs the fiery soul of abolitionist John Brown, re-creating the alluring passion of fanaticism . . . Plunging dangerously into the American past, the novel forces the reader to confront Brown's unique brand of passion . . . In every way, a superb piece of historical fiction."—Booklist

"John Brown's body all but rises from the grave in this energetic, multifaceted . . . story at once fact-filled and power-packed. A provocative, compelling view of the man and his time."—Kirkus Reviews

"An awesome debut. . . Olds is interested less in a biographical portrait than in a shifting kaleidoscope of evidence and imagination. Brilliantly marshaled . . . Dazzling . . . A vibrant, triumphant portrait of a complex and troubled man."—New Statesman

"Riveting . . . Raising Holy Hell is intense, visceral, and shocking,a roasting in hellfire . . . . Olds combines the lean, clipped phrases of the thriller writer with the moral intensity of a Jeremiah. His is a scintillating, gripping, in-your-face prose.—Newsday

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Through a montage of real and fabricated quotations from historical documents, witnesses and participants, and through the words of an omniscient and oddly ironic narrator, first-novelist Olds offers a fascinating study of slavery in the U.S. and of one of its most ardent opponents, the enigmatic John Brown, whose violent abolitionist crusades foreshadowed-and, arguably, precipitated-the Civil War. This protean narrative, part biography, part essay, traces Brown's life from his childhood in the Ohio of the early 1800s through his execution in Virginia at age 59, while simultaneously encapsulating various American attitudes-both personal and institutional-toward slavery and its victims. National heroes-including Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington-are skewered, sometimes with their own euphemistic bigotry, for their complicity in Southern slavery. Antislavery forces in the territories are portrayed as racists who merely want black people, free or enslaved, kept far away from their new homes. Historic figures like Robert E. Lee, Harriet Tubman, Horace Greeley and Frederick Douglass offer their impressions of Brown and his mission. Olds's mixture of novelistic and quasi-documentarian narrative produces a remarkably complex portrait of the paradoxical zealot. The inevitability of the strangely anticlimactic conflict at Harper's Ferry, Va., creates tension throughout, while the narrator's succinct, sometimes mordant commentary highlights elements of American history not fully acknowledged even today. 50,000 first printing; author tour. (Sept.)
School Library Journal
YA-Hearing the words Harper's Ferry and abolition turns one's thoughts to John Brown, the man best known for his failed attempt to raid the armory at Harper's Ferry. But the less well known side of his life is a more fascinating tale and reading it in a fictional format is perhaps the only way one can bear its unrelenting grimness. Brown was a religious fanatic, a self-flagellator, an inept businessman who kept his family impoverished and cared only about removing the scourge of slavery from America. The story is told through a series of interviews, documents, journal articles, and quotations, similar to Avi's Nothing But the Truth (Orchard, 1991), which softens Brown's rigidity and tempers the horror of his life. In setting historical background, one particularly poignant section describes the terror Africans must have felt when they were first captured, followed by the horrendous conditions they endured on their overseas voyage. A powerful, thought-provoking work.-Pam Spencer, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
Robert Olen Butler
A brilliant novel about the complexities of hatred...important and compelling.
Susan Dodd
Succeeds brilliantly at bringing alive a...quintessential American fanatic...and prime mover behind the Civil War. -- The Washington Post Book World
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312420932
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/1/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 982,809
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Olds is also the author of Bucking the Tiger, an American Library Association Notable Book. He lives in New Jersey.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2001

    Raises hell, wreaks havoc

    Why this book is out of print is utterly baffling. While not the definitive story of John Brown, it is far and away the best, most vivid fiction ever written about him, eclipsing both Leonard Ehrlich's less complex 'God's Angry Man,' and Russell Bank's more overstuffed and overrated 'Cloudsplitter.' Olds's innovative, trans-genre, pan-dimensional book, a soaring collage of various methods and mediums that at its best approaches a sort of urgent prose poetry, gives us less an heroic or demonic Brown than one who is as profoundly human as he is morally enigmatic. In declining himself either to condemn or villify, or to romanticize or rehabiliate his subject, the author encourages us, the reader, to draw our own conclusions. In this, he compliments our intelligence while providing us with an intellectually provocative, evocatively entertaining, aesthetically original read. There is writing here to stir the heart and challenge the soul. Highly stimulating, five star stuff!

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