Launch: Susan Higginbotham’s John Brown’s Women


Susan Higginbotham‘s novels have ranged across medieval and Tudor England and 19th century America. David Connon talks with her about her new novel, John Brown’s Women.

What is your “elevator pitch”?

John Brown’s Women is the story of three strong women associated with the American abolitionist: his wife, Mary, who never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr; his daughter-in-law Wealthy, whose adventure in Kansas turns to madness, mayhem, and murder; and his 15-year-old daughter Annie, who guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.

It is fascinating to read about John Brown through three women in his family.  How did you decide on this approach?

In 2016, I moved from North Carolina to a town in Maryland that’s just a few miles from Harpers Ferry. That awakened my interest in the raid on Harpers Ferry, and I picked up Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising, a gripping account of the raid. While most accounts of Harpers Ferry only briefly touch on Annie, who served as her father’s lookout on the farm he rented in preparation for the raid, Horwitz showed considerable interest in her. As I’ve always been interested in the lesser-known figures from history, I began to research her. A number of her letters have survived, and they make for wonderful reading. I decided to write a novel about her.

But as I did my research, I became interested in the other women in the family as well, particularly Mary, Brown’s quiet, stoic wife, and his daughter-in-law Wealthy, who was with the Brown men during the “Bleeding Kansas” years. Rather than confine my novel to Annie, who has already been the subject of two young-adult historical novels, I decided to tell the story from all three viewpoints. I think it makes for a fuller perspective on John Brown and helps to better explain his actions in 1859.

There seem to be four historical positions on John Brown:  hero, martyr, madman, or criminal.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, said that Brown “made the gallows glorious like the cross.”  Civil War historian Bruce Catton called Brown “unbalanced to the verge of outright madness.”  What has informed your thinking about John Brown?

As much as possible, I rely on primary sources, so I read hundreds of letters by Brown, some about slavery, many others about ordinary matters such as the running of his farm and his wool business. I also read letters from his family members and reminiscences by those who knew him—those who loved him, those who admired him, and those who despised him. Like most people of my generation, I grew up with the “crazed madman” view of Brown, but I came away with a position much closer to that of “hero.”

What inspired you to start writing?  And how does your occupational background affect your writing? 

I’ve been writing since I was a child, so I suppose it was reading that drew me to writing—I wanted to create my own stories and characters.

Most of my working life has been spent in the publishing industry, albeit in the less glamorous aspects. For the past two decades, I’ve worked as an editor for a legal publisher. I also have a law degree. I found that legal training is very helpful for writing historical fiction—it forces you to look at both sides of an issue and sift through evidence. One of the things that I’ve found most helpful was the advice of one of my trial advocacy professors, who told us when we were preparing for a mock criminal trial that there was something sympathetic in all of our defendants—we just had to find that and show it to the jury. I try to apply this when I depict historical figures.

What attracted you to writing historical fiction? 

My first stab at a historical novel was in junior high school, when I whiled away the time in study hall writing about the adventures of five orphans living through the Blitz. (Maybe I should dust it off, given the current vogue for all things WWII!) But having gotten nowhere with a couple of contemporary-set novels, I seriously began to write historical fiction about eighteen years ago, when I read Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second, about the very-ill-fated fourteenth-century English king. In my obsessive way, I began to read all I could about him, and in doing so I encountered the story of his niece, Eleanor de Clare, who was married to Edward II’s favorite, the also very ill-fated Hugh le Despenser the younger. Her story intrigued me, and soon I realized that I had the material for a novel. Rather than leave it for someone else to write, I decided to do so myself.

What is the most challenging part of researching, writing, or editing historical fiction?

Making myself write. Since I have a day job, it’s really tempting to goof off at night. It doesn’t help, of course, that these days novelists also have to do a great deal of marketing, which is another distraction.

What is the most surprising historical detail you have learned by reading contemporary letters or journals?

It’s difficult to single out one detail, but one thing that’s struck me is how modern some old letters sound. There’s a letter from Mary Lincoln’s stepmother, a rather stuffy woman, in which she writes, “We’re OK.” John Brown, Jr., Wealthy’s husband, wrote a letter in which he overhears his son talking to himself: “Stay cool, Johnny, and Father will build you a sled.”

What should a writer keep in mind if he or she wants to portray a controversial person from history?

Don’t gloss over the person’s misdeeds because that’s when you’ll lose credibility with the knowledgeable reader. Be faithful to the known history, and fill in the gaps plausibly.

What is your next project?

I’m writing about Ernestine Rose. Though she’s little known today, she was well known in the nineteenth century as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, abolition, and freethought.

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland.


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