A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

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Marrin, Albert.  A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.  978-0-307-98152-3. 244 p.  $19.99.  Gr. 7 and Up.

John Brown, born in 1800, was a religiously devout white abolitionist.  Brown’s approach to ending slavery was different than many of his contemporaries. Most abolitionists of the time favored a peaceful approach and working through government to end slavery.  John Brown felt that slavery was an affront to the Lord and believed that slavery should be eliminated by any means possible, including violence.  Albert Marrin, author of A Volcano Beneath the Snow, argues that Brown had a major role in inciting the Civil War and was “the Father of American Terrorism.”

John Brown’s anti-slavery actions show that the title may have been earned.  In 1855-1856, the actions of pro-slavery “border ruffians” in the Kansas Territory angered Brown so much that he and his followers killed five pro-slavery settlers who were not actively involved in the Territory conflict.  Brown was even more infamous for his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry (now West) Virginia when he and a group of followers raided the US Armory to obtain weapons for a mass slave rebellion.  Many of Brown’s followers deserted him, but Brown would not surrender and was hung for treason.

This book, aside from being a thorough documentation of historic events, gives the reader a real picture of John Brown’s personality and motives.  It is well-written and should be easy for most students to understand.  Albert Marrin puts John Brown’s life into context by including chapters on the history of slavery and Civil War events.  This book also features an abundance of primary source documentation (photographs, maps, drawings and diagrams) and an extended bibliography.  However, the one thing that sets A Volcano Beneath the Snow above other histories of the Civil War is its discussion of John Brown’s legacy.  The idea that violence is an acceptable way to achieve a Holy purpose (or justifiable revenge) is an integral part of modern terrorist thought.  Although Americans were horrified by the events of September 11, 2001, including the deaths of thousands of innocent people, the members of al-Qaeda viewed it as an act of Holy war against a Godless society, similar to Brown’s views.

This story is a thoroughly-researched and engaging study of a man who is significant to American history than it would first appear.  A Volcano Beneath the Snow is certainly a valuable addition to any secondary school collection.

 973.7; Civil War             Susan Fox, Washington Jr. /Sr. High School

One thought on “A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

  1. A powerful examination of a complex figure in American history, abolitionist and martyr John Brown, a figure whose beliefs led him to actions that further divided the nation and hastened the beginning of the Civil War. Marrin skillfully takes the reader to the time period, telling enough about Brown’s history to make his story compelling, then building the tension by taking one chapter to explain the growth and use of slavery worldwide, and the next to detail slavery in America. This effective buildup takes the reader to a greater understanding of the country’s tinderbox about to explode, and Brown’s actions as the match that ignited it. Not content with pacifism and “talk,” Brown believed that only action would make a difference. “’Talk…will never free the slaves.’ What was needed was not speeches but ‘action—action!’” (92) He came to see himself as a God-ordained spokesman to end the scourge of slavery in the states. Marrin weaves solid research (the text and endpapers are rich with references) with energetic storytelling, and the result is a compelling book. Marrin provides in-depth documentation of Brown’s part in the murder of five unarmed men (taken from their homes and hacked with swords, one shot), earning the label of terrorist, and the years leading to the climactic and unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown’s actions fired up many for the abolitionist cause, while they enraged many for their audacity and brutality. In the final chapters, Marrin considers Brown’s legacy with heavy questions: is force—is killing—justified, or even required, to right a wrong? Is anyone with “righteous rage” justified in sacrificing themselves as well as others? What is the true definition of terrorism? Source notes, Further Reading, and Index round out this detailed book. An exemplary first purchase for non-fiction in middle and high schools.

    When I first saw this book, I felt excited to have another title by Albert Marrin, but discouraged by the weight of the book (a hard sell), and further discouraged by the text set-up: two columns per page, though with frequent black and white illustrations/photos, etc. However, once I began reading, I found that I was hooked; that is the strength of Marrin’s vivid writing, enhanced by the excellent illustrations. I have not seen students reading the book, and during booktalks, it is often ignored for smaller (and yes, physically lighter) choices.

    However, it is worth booktalking, and worth use in American history courses covering the pre-Civil War era. John Brown’s actions can be examined as guiding the nation to war. Additionally, two chapters are worth considering on their own for reading by history students; they are: Chapter 2: The Foulest Blot, which in 21 pages details the rise of slavery, and Chapter 3: An Object Vast in Its Compass, which uses 31 pages to explore the beginnings and changes in American slavery.

    973.7; Slavery, Abolitionists, American Civil War
    Melissa Scott, Shenango High School

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