While the story centers on one son's quest to unearth the skeletons of his father's past, the reader becomes equally interested in the class divisions between neighbors. While Josh's family inhabits a rickety house, his best friend and neighbor, Luke Richmond, lives with his father in a five-story mansion-an exact twin to the five-story house left rotting in the woods. As we uncover the shared past of the twin houses, we begin to understand the secret to Josh's father's cruelty.
Though sparse and economical, Cummings' exposition propels the reader forward, though on occasion, the dialogue diminishes into the trivialities of "teen-talk," rather than a serious portrayal. There is a fine line between succeeding in the imitative qualities of a young adult voice and simply "writing down" to the reader. While Cummings falls into some trappings, overall, he tends to avoid oversimplifying the story.
The book builds for the final scene, in which Josh's father, much like John Brown, attempts to act on his convictions rather than side with man's law. If the story begs anything of its reader, it is to reassess the definition of a hero. Cummings seems to suggest that while the term holds new meaning from the days of John Brown, humankind's shortcomings remain the same. And the book's triumph, perhaps, is in its exploration of these shortcomings; in its ability to turn a despicable character, Josh's father, into a man we come to admire, or at the very least, understand.
Cummings does little to reinvent the wheel, though by staying within the bounds of the genre's conventions, he employs a trusted formula in a new style. The use of history as a narrative tool adds a scopethat is rarely attempted in the realm of young adult literature. By dusting the cobwebs from America's past, he gives his characters a future.
There are elements of a ghost story in "The Night I Freed John Brown," with the opening of the novel taking place in the house where Bill Connors grew up. The five-story house was a Roman Catholic retreat house, but it's now vacant, except for occasional visits by transients -- and Josh and Luke.
When Bill learns that Josh and Luke have visited the house, he has one of his frequent tantrums, prompting the inquisitive Josh to probe the matter even more. Josh would make a great investigative reporter -- or writer -- since Cummings said much of the novel is based on his experiences growing up in Harpers Ferry in the 1970s.
The novel also is educational, in a non-invasive way, since it explains to history-deprived young people -- and their parents -- the connection between radical abolitionist John Brown and the slave revolt he planned in 1859 in the federal armory town of Harpers Ferry, VA, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.
The "everything is illuminated" ending of "The Night I Freed John Brown" --don't worry, I'm not going to give it away -- provides a satisfactory resolution of Josh's concerns that he's the child Katie wanted, not Bill. Yes, Josh is the youngest of three children and his two brothers, Jerry and Robbie, are merciless teasers of Josh.
It's one of the best novels I've read in a long time and, as I noted, it's not just for young people. Philomel Books is a division of the Penguin Group, an outstanding major publisher. Calling all librarians out there: Buy this book! You might have to buy multiple copies.
David M. Kinchen
John Michael Cummings has had over 75 short stories published in various magazines, but this is his first novel --- and it's amazing. Cummings has a special talent for description, painting vividly clear pictures with his animated words ("Step after creaky step we went up, with Jerry in the lead, the darkness over us like a low ceiling we were always about to bump our heads into."). He brings to life a story where things are not always as they seem, with burning emotions begging to be freed and lonely souls desperate for healing.
THE NIGHT I FREED JOHN BROWN is a historically rich story with colorful characters and a family secret that will draw readers in and keep the pages turning.
A must-read for young people as well as those who appreciate masterfully-constructed prose.
In his first novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, John Michael Cummings shares with us the story of Josh, the youngest of three boys growing up in historical Harpers Ferry. With rich detail, Cummings draws on his personal experiences to transport the reader into the historic setting of Harpers Ferry the tourist destination in West Virginia that celebrates the life of abolitionist John Brown. Unlike his two older brothers, Josh is an artist. He spends many sleepless nights drawing in his sketchbook, dreaming of the day he can leave his creatively oppressive family. Josh is all too often misunderstood by his father and coddled by his mother, and Josh desperately searches for clues that might explain the distance between him and his father. The Night I Freed John Brown will appeal to a wide range of young adult readers. It is a fast-paced story that addresses themes like familial relationships, identity development and brotherhood. Reviewer: Matthew Skillen
Gr 7-10- Josh lives in Harpers Ferry, WV, in an aging limestone house with his two bullying older brothers, timid mother, and tyrannical father. Known for its connections to legendary historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass, the town attracts many visitors. Living in its fishbowl atmosphere brings shame and anger to Josh's father but evokes joy and creativity in their new neighbors, the Richmonds. Josh envies everything about Luke Richmond. He envies his new friend's normal brothers, kind father, and beautiful house, which is almost an exact duplicate of the abandoned house Josh's father grew up in on the outskirts of town. Explanations for his father's anger, the abandoned house, and other family secrets are revealed just as Josh's world comes crashing down around him. The pacing of the story is slow and the characters are one-dimensional and oftentimes stereotypical. The metaphors involving John Brown are often forced and the historical relationship between Brown's acts and Josh's experiences will be lost on many teens. The author attempts to address too many conflicts-family dysfunction, corruption in the Catholic Church, John Brown's legacy-and fails to bring about a convincing resolution to any of them. While there is some action and adventure, this title will appeal to a limited number of young adults.-Lynn Rashid, Marriots Ridge High School, Marriotsville, MD
Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a little town tucked in the shadows of the surrounding mountains, is a perfect place for an old-fashioned tale of family secrets and revelations. It was the site of John Brown's raid, and the ghost of John Brown lives on in the anger and rage of Josh Connors's father. The gentler spirits of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass, who also had connections to the town, seem to inhabit the neighbor Josh is drawn to, an actor, historian and reader of Shakespeare who kindles in Josh a desire to see more of the world and lead a better life. But all is not what it seems, and the psychological drama set up in the conflict between the two men unfolds in a tense series of nighttime events through which Josh learns much about his father's past and from which springs a hope for transcendence. Characterizations are sharp, the setting eerily evoked and the story satisfying, though as hard to pin down as the town's ghostly forebears. A highly original meditation on how the past can haunt the present. (Fiction. 12+)
"Characterizations are sharp, the setting eerily evoked and the story satisfying. A highly original meditation on how the past can haunt the present."
“There are marvelous plot twists and surprises right to the very end . . . and his prose can be pure poetry."
—The Boston Globe
"It tells us to make our own happy endings, and that life goes on, whether we like it or not."
"Cummings has a special talent for description, painting vividly clear pictures with his animated words."
"It is a fast-paced story that addresses themes like: familial relationships, identity development and brotherhood.”
—The ALAN Review
“A compelling narrative of a troubled family and a dark secret of past grudges and grievances."
—The Buffalo News
"Thoughtful and compelling . . . This moody, almost Gothic, novel will offer you a pleasant few hours to be sure."
—The Orange County Register
". . . Lively characters whose voices ring true. Josh is every young boy who ever resented his own culture and family.”
—The Baton Rouge Advocate