John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
When abolitionist John Brown’s daughters hear this song for the first time they are shocked: “Annie gasped and covered her mouth in horror. Even Sarah took a step back.” Less than a year before — on December 2, 1859 — their father had been executed for “crimes committed during the raid on the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry . . . the capital offenses of treason, murder, and conspiracy with no cause.”
John Brown, unlike most anti-slavery activists of his time, believed that armed insurrection was the only way to defeat the evil of slavery. Brown enlisted his sons in the fight against the “blasphemy of slavery”, but kept his wife and daughters ignorant of the details of their work. Sarah, who has survived a life-threatening illness that left her infertile, discovers that their home is a stop on the Underground Railroad:
Sarah knew her father was deeply invested in the Great Abolition Calling. Her brothers had fought and died in Kansas Territory for it, but the Brown women had never been privy to their plans and actions. John thought it too dangerous. A woman’s role was to be the helper — to tend to the household and raise strong children in service to God’s purpose.
Sarah, however, can never bear children, and her artistic gifts help many “passengers” on the Underground Railroad find their way to freedom. Her father even asks her to draw a map that will lead slaves in the area surrounding Harpers Ferry to a meeting point where they could join Brown and his men — a map that is seized by “southern lawmen”, making Sarah a target for arrest.
More than 150 years later, a young couple moves into a historic home on Apple Hill Lane in New Charlestown, West Virginia, not far from Harpers Ferry. Eden and Jack Anderson have struggled with years of infertility, and their marriage is at the breaking point. In her quest for the “seal of authenticity that could blast their real estate values through the roof” — a listing on the National Register of Historic Places — Eden discovers that the house may indeed have connections to the Underground Railroad. A Civil War-era porcelain doll’s head, a hidden key, and a secret root cellar are all interesting clues — but what do they mean? With the help of Cleo, the little girl next door, and Mrs. Silverdash, local historian and bookstore owner, Eden attempts to solve the puzzle.
Eden’s research eventually brings her indirectly to another infertile woman, Sarah Brown, who visited the house on Apple Hill Lane 150 years earlier. Sarah, the “mapmaker”, may not be destined to have children, but her legacy is just as real and valuable. As Eden comes to terms with her possible infertility, she sees that a life without children can still be valuable and productive. Author Sarah McCoy seems to be asking the question that Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Wild Geese”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The novel is expertly constructed, although sometimes relying too much on coincidence, with the two narratives coalescing in a very satisfying and surprising way. One problem with novels that use dual narratives is that one of them is usually more interesting than the other, and The Mapmaker’s Children is no exception. The drama and tragedy of Sarah’s life overpowers the sadness and disappointment of Eden’s. Of course, suffering is relative, and the reader’s heart goes out to both Eden and Sarah, who have experienced loss and grief but face the future with hope and courage. Eden says to 11-year-old Cleo:
We can’t force life to do what we want when we want it. We can’t change yesterday or control tomorrow. We can only live today as best we can. And it just might turn out better than expected.
Sarah’s perspective changes after she nearly dies from dysentery:
Sarah had been on her deathbed and had risen a new person, tired of being on the outskirts, tired of waiting for fate to decide if she lived or died, tired of powerlessness. If she was damaged and never to have the family of her sisters and mother, what was there left to fear?
McCoy’s greatest accomplishment in The Mapmaker’s Children is her vivid depiction of Sarah Brown. She says, “I was more concerned with capturing Sarah’s heart and future impact in the present day than on writing an official profile.” That sentence perfectly describes the value and historical fiction. I’ve often struggled with an explanation of historical fiction. When someone asks me, “Is it true?”, I’ve said, not very coherently, “Well, yes, the author did a lot of research, but made some things up, like letters and dialogue, and changed some things around to make a better story.” McCoy explains it much better:
My role as the storyteller was simply to use the tools of my craft and imagine what Sarah’s life might’ve looked like, how she felt, her struggles and joys, what she might’ve dreamed, even as I dreamed her into existence. I did my homework for years: researched newspaper articles, letters, distant Brown relatives alive today, Sarah’s real-life art, Underground Railroad artifacts, symbols, and codes, bootleggers, baby dolls, and a colossal amount of John Brown information available in library archives.
If you’re interested in learning more about John Brown — who remains a controversial figure today — I highly recommend The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (the National Book Award winner for fiction in 2013). John Vanderslice, an author and a professor of creative writing, teaches the novel in his class on historical fiction. He says, “The narrator’s voice just takes hold of you and doesn’t let you go. And what a way to bring crazy John Brown alive for an audience. I don’t think I can ever think of John Brown the same way after reading McBride’s book.”
Now, when I think of John Brown, I will think of Sarah Brown, whose maps and artwork demonstrate that we may have untapped talents and courage — qualities that are hidden like the root cellar on Apple Hill Lane, waiting to be found.
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