Raising Holy Hell

Raising Holy Hell

by Bruce Olds

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, Bruce Old's 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.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Historical
  • Rating: 4.00
  • Pages: 333
  • Publish Date: August 3rd 2002 by Picador
  • Isbn10: 0312420935
  • Isbn13: 9780312420932

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Olds' imaginative narrative weaves the relatively few historical facts known about Brown's plans for the raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry with facts such as how slaves were repressed and tortured, and other historical events of and around Brown's life, to create what I think is the clearest picture of this man who "failed" at everything he did, except sparking the Civil War. A pivotal question about Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry surrounds his original estimate of men necessary to succeed in arming slaves he anticipated would flock to the armory once he took control. While imprisoned at Charles Town and awaiting trial, he conducted visits (we can't call them press conferences, but that in effect is what they were) with the press to get out his message, which amplified the intent behind the raid and fanned southern fears of a slave revolt. Neither Olds, nor historians, have enough information to answer these questions with certainty. But, if I'm reading Olds' text right, it's not unreasonable to connect the dots and arrive at a conclusion that Brown did have a plan B in mind, or at least he cast his lot with the raid and took advantage of events as they unfolded favorably to his cause. Subsequent to reading Olds' text - I really can't label it either a novel or history - I read "historical" texts (biographies and essays) on Brown's life and his raid, and for my money, Olds' portrait seems the most accurate and the richest. But at least that presence was given enough form after reading Olds' book to call it a ghost.

Finally, Bruce Olds makes the reader understand the complexity of the issues. His final take on John Brown seems to be that he was an unpleasant, possibly insane religious zealot.

I absolutely hated reading this book. Things that make me dislike the book: Historical novel: A negative right off.

I find it interesting too how so many characters played into his downfall including Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth and Colonel Robert E.

It talks about the methods he used, many of which were quite violent. It wasn't the type of book I usually read, but I learned a great deal more of John Brown's story and history in general.

Not that all of the passages are so dense with unusual verbs--they would lose some their power, stand int he way of description rathe than making it richer. Raising Holy Hell come out three years before Russell Bank's doorstop of a book, Cloudsplitter, which covered the same subject--the life and times of the abolitionist John Brown--and condenses a hundred-pages of Banks into ten pages with no loss of nuance but the addition of voices. After a brief prologue about John Brown on the verge of breakdown, Olds shifts to a discussion of human biology--particularly the role of melanocytes in the formation of the integument--and then to a graphic discussion of the Middle Passage. I wouldn't necessarily go to this book to the learn the true and right history of John Brown. Except for John Brown, who foresaw a time of mixed races, who warned that neither segregation nor deportation would work, but only cause more misery. Olds is, as one would hope in a (fictional) biography of John Brown, especially good on his main character. The book culminates--as it should--in a long set piece that describes Brown's loss at Harper's Ferry.

I do not think that this should be the definitive style for popular history, but I can't deny that I am more likely to become engaged in the time and personalities if they are approached artfully and evocatively.

But a more accurate assessment would be that Raising Holy Hell reads like a novel written by the child of McCarthy and Hansen while in the midst of some delirium or fever.

Granted, you must be interested in the subject matter ( slavery, early American politics, race and culture, and examinations of spiritual and religious ideologies), but it is a good read full of mystery and suspense, even when some of the events come pouring back to you from middle school history lessons.