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A man and his women – meet abolitionist John Brown in Susan Higginbottham’s book!

Today, I am hosting a stop on Ms Higginbottham’s Coffee Pot Book Club Tour featuring her excellent book John Brown’s Women. I knew who John Brown was – like many of you, I’d grown up singing about him – so I was pretty intrigued when I was asked to host this tour.
I was, however, not prepared to be so totally blown away by this book – but before I go all gushy (and I am biting my tongue here:hard!) let’s start with the nitty-gritty – like the blurb!

John Brown’s Women: A novel

As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin—slavery—abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.

Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.

Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John—and upon her.

Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.

My review:

Some characters hook you immediately. Young Mary is one of those. Shy and naïve, this seventeen-year-old joins the household of the recently widowed John Brown to help her older sister with all the duties that go with managing a home and five children. Mary has few expectations on life: she knows she is not particularly pretty, nor is she well-educated or witty or charming. She definitely does not expect handsome Mr Brown to take any interest in her, so she joins the household determined to do what she does best, namely quietly get her work done.

But John Brown does notice Mary. When she does not hesitate to help one of the runaway slaves Brown helps smuggle north, something sparks between them. Some time later, he proposes. He also offers to pay for extra tuition so that she can fill in some of the blanks in her very sketchy education. I think that is the moment when Mary starts falling in love with him, even if she never thinks of it as love: to her, marrying John Brown is the sensible thing to do—albeit all those children are a bit daunting.

Ms Higginbotham paints a wonderful portrait of Mary Brown. She is naïve yet wise, she is at times full of insecurities but also quite certain of what is right and what is wrong. Mary’s life is one of making do, of coping with her husband’s bankruptcies, of making ends meet, of somehow setting one foot before the other despite feeling entirely numb after losing four children to dysentery, another to an awful accident. And John, well he is there too, offering comfort when she grieves—and grieving with her.

Ms Higginbotham’s John Brown is not only a devoted and tender husband. He is also a loving, if demanding, father. His religious views are stark but he is also a man filled with love for his fellow man, no matter the colour of his skin. For John Brown, slavery is an abomination and it is his hope that somehow he will be given the opportunity to rid the world of it.

There are few heroics in Mary’s life—beyond that of coping with the sheer weight of tasks that everyday life consists of in the 19th century. There are no action scenes, no nail-biting scenes. And yet Ms Higginbotham’s prose is so addictive it requires an effort to set the book down to do mundane things like cooking or taking the dog out. I find myself thinking about Mary all the time. I am overcome with a desire to find out more about her and her world, be it the life of Fredrik Douglass who pops by in a cameo portrait or the water cure Mary takes to restore her health.

John Brown is fortunate in that he has more than one woman in his life, hence the book’s title. Other than Mary, John’s daughter-in-law Wealthy  is given a voice as is Annie, one of his daughters. Ms Higginbotham breathes life into both these young women—and in particular to the harrowing events in Kansas in the 1850s as witnessed by Wealthy.

Like Wealthy, Annie becomes directly involved in John Brown’s abolitionist activities. Wealthy and Annie may be in the thick of things in a way that Mary never is but despite this, to me it is Mary’s voice that lingers. It is her stoic acceptance of the tragedies that befall the family, her constant belief in her husband’s cause—and in him—that carries the book.

This was an excellent read. In fact, it was one of my best reading experiences in 2021!

Now, after that review I can see you all rushing towards your closest bookshop (which likely is digital) to buy your own copy. Trust me, you will NOT regret it! Here is the buy link:


About the author:

Susan Higginbotham is the author of a number of historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England and, more recently, nineteenth-century America, including The Traitor’s Wife, The Stolen Crown, Hanging Mary, and The First Lady and the Rebel. She and her family, human and four-footed, live in Maryland, just a short drive from where John Brown made his last stand. When not writing or procrastinating, Susan enjoys traveling and collecting old photographs.

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Check out the whole tour here:

5 thoughts on “A man and his women – meet abolitionist John Brown in Susan Higginbottham’s book!”

  1. Oh! When I read, ‘ everyone knows about John Brown’ I was expecting Queen Victoria’s Scottish ghillie. Although I learned the John Brown song at school it was always about jumping from a plane without a parachute and I had no idea/we weren’t taught that he was a real person.

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