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The Night I Freed John Brown by John Michael…

The Night I Freed John Brown

by John Michael Cummings

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"The Night I Freed John Brown" captures the essence of youthful bewilderment and its desire to be loved, accepted, understood, and valued.

This is a very compelling story of a teen's experiences in tourist town, Harper's Ferry, WV. Mr. Cummings captures the imagination of Josh as he deals with his unfortunate circumstances of growing up with a father riddled with a bitterness that shows itself in their tattered home. It shares the torment of trying to understand and love a father with a secret he cannot share until events bring the family to an impossible situation that cannot be healed without its unveiling. The story brings moments of laughter, hope, shock, and sorrow as the troubled youth tries desperately to find self worth and acceptance and familial love. It rivets forward as Josh pushes for truth as hard as his father pushes to lock down his secret. ( )
  Aminahcc | Sep 5, 2012 |
Loved reading this wonderful book. Could not stop reading it especially the last 10 chapters. An exciting story with many twists and turns until the dramatic conclusion. A superb story that blends the character Josh's childhood living in historic Harper's Ferry with John Brown and many secrets and dramatic happenings. I highly recommend this book for readers both young and old. You will not be disappointed. ( )
  TraceyOliv | Mar 18, 2010 |
Though this book is nominally for "young adults," it's a rip-roaring good story that will appeal to almost anyone who was ever a boy or had a father.

The central character is Josh, a 13-year-old boy growing up in a poor family in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Both literally and figuratively, Josh and his family live in the shadow of the church next door, of their more affluent neighbors, and of the legendary John Brown, the 19th-century abolitionist whose statue glares at their house from across the street.

For an adult reader such as myself, the book awakens long-sleeping memories of the world as seen in childhood: small and intimate, yet imbued with cosmic portent and urgency. Cummings's greatest achievement as a writer is to re-inhabit this world and take his readers along with him. He tells the story from Josh's point of view, with never a false note, never an adult voice intruding into the narrative, never a sly wink at the reader.

The truth and sincerity of the writing are joined by its remarkable insight into the relationship between boys and their fathers. The mystery of John Brown, of the abandoned house, of the search for "cowmint" - all those are mere surrogates for the real mystery Josh must solve. It's a mystery that every boy must confront as he grows up: the mystery of his own father. First made an object of uncritical hero-worship, then seen as a foolish bully, and at last accepted as a fully-realized human being with virtues, flaws, courage, and fears, Josh's father - like the reader's - is finally understood.

Kids will love it because it tells a true and exciting story that's really about *them*. Adults will love it for different reasons, as a time-warp trip back into their own past.

-reviewed by Schriftsteller ( )
  sentry255 | Dec 27, 2009 |
Showing 3 of 3

The Night I Freed John Brown by John Michael Cummings is a book about 13-year-old Josh Connors, a boy living in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. A Harpers Ferry native, Cummings uses the town as a backdrop for this novel. He includes historical settings such as Jefferson's Rock, John Brown Wax Museum, St. Peter's Church, and John Brown's Fort to weave his story

Josh's life changes during the summer of his seventh grade year when the Richmonds move in next door. They have a son named Luke who is the same age as Josh. The Richmonds are much different than the Connors. For instance Luke's family is remodeling a beautiful Victorian home while Josh lives in a run-down former souvenir shop. In addition, Luke has been to Europe, reads Shakespere, and believes John Brown was a martyr. Even though his mother and father are divorced, Luke's father cares for his children very much.

On the other hand, Josh's father is a very angry and bitter man. Josh is forbidden to go to downtown Harpers Ferry, go to church, or discuss John Brown.

Much to his father's disapproval Josh and Luke visit downtown Harpers Ferry and perform in a play about John Brown. Josh even goes to confession with a priest his father hates. Much of Josh's father's anger is a result of the loss of his parents' house, which they lived in because they were caretakers of St. Peter's Catholic Church. The deserted house of Josh's grandparents is identical to Luke's newly restored home.

Josh's accidental firing of a BB into the John Brown Wax Museum front window sets off a series of spellbinding events which result in a surprising confession by Mr. Connors concerning secrets in his past.

With the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry this fall, this book, The Night I Freed John Brown, would be an excellent choice for young adult readers.
added by sentry255 | editTeen Ink, Katie E. (Aug 1, 2009)
The Texas Review

If you tell people you live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, you often get a puzzled frown. But if you add “That’s where Harpers Ferry is,” there is almost instant recognition.

Harpers Ferry (without an apostrophe. Don’t ask) immediately brings to mind the sad adventures of John Brown, the abolitionist who fought to free the slaves believing (wrongly) that slaves would join him and together they would be successful. It was his dream, and it made him a madman. In 1859, Brown, who, along with his men and two of his sons, holed up in the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. He was captured, beaten, put on trial, and hanged on a gibbet in nearby Charles Town for his trouble.

Some call John Brown a martyr, others call him a traitor. But whatever John Brown was, he helped trigger the Civil War and change the history of this country forever. May he rest in peace.

And Harpers Ferry, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, is now a National Historic Park, with ole-timey stores, a blacksmith shop, lots of ghost stories, and a fearsome wax figure of John Brown, his hair wild about his head, wielding a musket and glaring with fierce dark eyes at tourists and residents alike from a wide museum window in the heart of town. At night, a spotlight near his feet adds an eerie glow, and if you’re visiting the town and you happen to round a corner expecting nothing but more quaint buildings, you will find yourself gasping, so lifelike is the figure whose gun is pointing right at your heart.

It is this John Brown who is a silent but ever-present subject in this first novel by John Michael Cummings, who grew up in Harpers Ferry, swam in its rivers, worshipped in its old St. Peter’s Church, and walked its brick and cobbled streets.

The novel, whose author has an impressive list of published writing credentials in short stories, creative non-fiction, and essays to his name, is written from the viewpoint of Josh Connors, a 13-year-old boy who’s made miserable by his bullying older brothers and his always-angry father, and who stubbornly finds a way to enjoy his life anyway. His father doesn’t like his friends, but Josh keeps them; his father doesn’t approve of his son’s search for a mysterious herb, but Josh continues his quest, and his father refuses to answer questions about the town, the church, his grandmother’s old house on the hill, and his family—but Josh continues to ask them. His mother Katie is a nearly silent figure, usually hidden in the dark shadow of her husband’s anger, but who remains a faithful, stubbornly optimistic and loving wife and mother.

Written for young adults, The Night I Freed John Brown is a mix of family dynamics, adventure, history, and mystery. Young Josh knows a side of the town that the tourists will never know, and he also knows things his father doesn’t know, like why it’s important to be able to change long-held convictions, let go of ancient angers, and ultimately, change our hearts.

Josh, like his father and so many of Harpers Ferry’s residents, resents the constant presence of tourists who, according to Josh’s father Bill, seem to watch every move they make. But among the things and people who capture Josh’s imagination are, Luke, the son of what Josh believes is the richest man in town, one Niles Richmond; his wayward cousin Ricky Hardaway, a young hard-drinking troublemaker in town, and Father Ron, the pastor of St. Peter’s church, and whom Josh’s father hates for reasons he refuses to divulge.

Cummings vividly describes his protagonist’s hardscrabble life and tumbledown home, the fields and meadows, the caves and railroad tracks, the rivers and all the things that make up a boy’s life in a small town , albeit an historic town, during one dusty hot summer. But it’s the empty old, many-roomed white house that once belonged to his grandmother, an exact replica of the one that his seemingly wealthy friend Luke lives in, that holds his imagination in its grip. His grandmother had turned it over to the Catholic Church, which had long ago and for unknown reasons abandoned it and left it to the bugs and the bats and the occasional tramp. Its history is one of the many things that keep Josh searching, struggling to discover secrets and learn more about its shadows, running, always running, with John Brown’s ghost close behind him all the way.

One fateful night, out of Josh’s frustration with his life, his father, his brothers and the town, he takes a BB gun and, aiming from his bedroom window, shoots at the wax figure of John Brown that seems to be staring right at him—and through him. In the rush of events that follow this angry act, the story evolves, the mysteries resolve, and Bill Connors finds a way to come to terms with his past and make peace in his present.

Along the way, an adult reader may become a bit annoyed with the adjectives and metaphors Josh employs to describe the people and the experiences of his life. Things are “cruddy” and “crappy” and “yucky” and places are dark as “the inside of our lunch bags.” It helps to remember that this is a story for young people, and is narrated by one, and this is how they think and talk. Josh aspires to be an artist, not a linguist.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but Cummings pulls the reader along with plenty of action and authentic dialogue. You care about Josh, Harpers Ferry’s Tom Sawyer sans Becky Thatcher, because he cares about so many things. And many a young person will find themselves relating to his jumbled emotions about the man from whose loins he has sprung. And despite Bill Connors’ crotchety and cynical outlook on life, you find yourself caring what happens to him, too.

--Donna Acquaviva

Mid-American Review

After publishing nearly 100 stories in prestigious print journals and online magazines, John Michael Cummings has “debuted” with his novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, a brisk and heartfelt coming-of-age story of a misfit growing up with more than the usual burdens of living in a tourist trap.

Set in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, home to John Brown and an epicenter for Civil War era merchandising and tourism, the novel builds toward a chaos that reminded me of what might happen if George Saunders were to play the life-in-a-theme-park theme straight.

The story centers on two boys growing up on opposite sides of the experience. Luke is a historian’s son, living in the stately antique home next door to where Josh and his family’s run-down limestone house and overgrown yard. Josh’s family, and particularly his acerbic and antisocial father, put down roots long before Brown the folk hero became Brown the Person of Historical Significance.

Josh’s father loathes the tourists, rages about being watched all the time, and none-too-subtly works to hide himself, his home, and his family from the otherwise scrubbed and period-perfect surroundings. Josh’s mother is long-suffering, though possessed of a backbone that while hinted at, comes to little in the story. Josh’s parents fight obliquely, and Cummings captures what it is like to overhear cryptic bits of conversations that children know started before they were born.

Those conversations have to do with the father’s lapsed and inconsistent Catholicism, his struggle and ire toward the church and its current, progressive director, “Father ‘Ron,’” and the fate and upkeep of a family house, well away from town but visible out by the tracks, that is an exact replica of the showpiece home next door but is abandoned by the river, haunted only by dope smoking local teens and the odd bum.

To add to Josh’s struggles, he has a pair of ne’er-do-wells for brothers: “Seeing my brothers out in the town was like looking in the mirror at the worst time. We were not clean-cut, cute boys like the tourist kids, or like Luke and his brothers for that matter. Jerry had a small, red, scrunched-up face that looked to be in pain all the time. Robbie had a chipped front tooth; old Sharky, they called him at school. And thanks to Dad giving us crew cuts every month with a Sears home barber kit, we looked like cue balls.”

Class warfare, angry Catholic family, history, severe appearance deficits, what more could a young boy want? Josh hates that his father’s anti-social paranoia makes the family avoid tourists and bans all guests from being inside the home. But as the story progresses, and the father shows glimpses of a friendlier, happier man he might once have been, Josh wants to know more. In a pivotal scene in the book, his father tells a story about what is essentially a lucky plant that grows among the weeds of their yard, cowmint. A plant not listed in any field guides, cowmint is a low grower, but one which because Josh’s father once convinced someone it is lucky, now appears to have those same qualities for Josh.

While working to unravel the mystery of his father, things go wrong for Josh as he fraternizes with Luke, and his learned and suave historian father, irritating his dad all the more. When Josh attends and participates in a play about John Brown, one his father had forbid him being part of, the punishment is draconian, and Josh, full of rage and rebellion, sets in motion a chain of events that lead to the chaos of the novel’s end.

Cummings is able to keep a sense of suspense thrumming through the book, as well as several simultaneous plots running and clear. While this is a book billed as one “for young adult readers,” the story is mature, sad, affecting, and challenging. The characters’ flaws make them frustrating, at times tragic, and Cummings resists the temptation to let them off the hook or to let them veer too far from who they are.

Admittedly, sometimes there is writing like this, “In that second, I caught sight of myself in the only crappy little mirror in our house, and my face was nothing any mirror should ever show.” The whole catching conscience in a reflection is something that, because it is a book for young readers, I am inclined at first to forgive. But then, why should young readers not expect a solid effort, especially when so many other parts of this story are so well done and so compelling?

It’s a small quibble to have with a book wherein a skilled writer holds several plots aloft at once, keeping our interest in what will happen. The end wraps pretty neatly, and maybe should, for its audience, but then details of the story sing, the father character lingers long afterward, and it is easy to stay with these characters long afterward, wondering at the ways the events of that summer played on in their lives.

--Gabriel Welsch, Juniata College
The Baton Rouge Advocate

This coming-of-age book, a young adult novel, is set in the 1960s in the bucolic town of Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. It’s a tourist town full of history - the famous abolitionist and anarchist John Brown was captured and hanged there in 1859 by a young U.S. Army officer named Robert E. Lee. Now the whole town is like one big theme park, a Civil War Williamsburg, only smaller. Young Josh lives in an old limestone house with his older brothers, Jerry and Robbie, his mother, Katie, and his father, Bill.

The town is a kid-friendly place if ever there was one: there are tree-shaded alleys and lanes, old houses, shops and woods to explore. Bill, Josh’s father, spoils it all. He is sullen and foul-tempered, doesn’t like anyone around the town and in Josh’s estimation, is not a good provider. The old house the family lives in is shabby, the furniture is worn and damaged. Josh knows his mother longs for something better. Not only that, Bill has a grudge against the Catholic Church. And where is the family home? Right next door to the town cathedral.

Josh can’t help but admire the Richmonds, a wealthier family who lives nearby. Pretty soon Josh and his friend Luke Richmond are running around the town getting into adventures. Yet every time Josh tries to explore some new experience, it seems to irritate his father, who reacts by grounding him. As the story builds there is a mystery involving an old white house once owned by Josh’s grand-mother, a mysterious priest and a cousin who is a little to the left of law abiding. Josh reaches a breaking point and something dramatic happens that unlocks many secrets. But sometimes when you learn the truth, you learn that you have been wrong about things.

Cummings does a great job of evoking the atmosphere of the tourist town. It’s not the scenery here that is important though, it’s the characters, and Cummings has created some lively ones whose voices ring true. Josh, particularly, is a wonderful character who is every young boy who ever resented his own culture and family. There are some fine lessons here as well.

--Greg Langley
The Night I Freed John Brown
John Michael Cummings

New York, NY: Philomel Books, 2008.
251 pages.

Reviewed by BJ HOLLARS


While aimed at a young adult audience, John Michael Cummings’ The Night I Freed John Brown manages to transcend the genre by focusing on historical events as an impetus to untangle the riddles of a present-day family.

In the sleepy town of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—the sight of John Brown’s famous raid—Josh and his family are haunted by poverty, a cruel father, and an abandoned five-story house rotting in the nearby woods. The town’s historical backdrop only manages to illuminate the mysteries, and Cummings makes good use of the setting—Thomas Jefferson Rock, John Brown Cave, and the Frederick Douglass House all manage to help weave a gothic tone throughout the narrative.

While the story centers on one son’s quest to unearth the skeletons of his father’s past, the reader becomes equally interested in the class divisions between neighbors. While Josh’s family inhabits a rickety house, his best friend and neighbor, Luke Richmond, lives with his father in a five-story mansion—an exact twin to the five-story house left rotting in the woods. As we uncover the shared past of the twin houses, we begin to understand the secret to Josh’s father’s cruelty.

Though sparse and economical, Cummings’ exposition propels the reader forward, though on occasion, the dialogue diminishes into the trivialities of “teen-talk,” rather than a serious portrayal. There is a fine line between succeeding in the imitative qualities of a young adult voice and simply “writing down” to the reader. While Cummings falls into some trappings, overall, he tends to avoid oversimplifying the story.

The book builds for the final scene, in which Josh’s father, much like John Brown, attempts to act on his convictions rather than side with man’s law. If the story begs anything of its reader, it is to reassess the definition of a hero. Cummings seems to suggest that while the term holds new meaning from the days of John Brown, humankind’s shortcomings remain the same. And the book's triumph, perhaps, is in its exploration of these shortcomings; in its ability to turn a despicable character, Josh’s father, into a man we come to admire, or at the very least, understand.

Cummings does little to reinvent the wheel, though by staying within the bounds of the genre’s conventions, he employs a trusted formula in a new style. The use of history as a narrative tool adds a scope that is rarely attempted in the realm of young adult literature. By dusting the cobwebs from America’s past, he gives his characters a future.
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...My new friend Luke hopped the rusted chain hanging low and heavy across the overgrown lane and caught up with me where the weeds became thick and dead trees lay everywhere. We had just entered a secret junglelike world. Vines curled down like snakes, and dark trees stood around like villains and thieves. Blanketing the ground were purple wildflowers and gooey webs of silver leaves. Dead ahead were the ghostly white ruins of a chapel, its jagged walls biting up through the black earth like bad teeth. Nearby, in speckles of sunlight, stood a vine-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary, her arms missing. You could almost see her waving hello to us...
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From the publisher: A haunting adventure, a brilliant new author.
Young Josh knows there is something about the tall Victorian House on the Harpers Ferry Hill, the one his father grew up in, that he can’t quite put his finger on—ghosts he can’t name, mysteries he can’t solve. And his impossible father won’t give him any clues. He’s hiding something. And then there’s the famous John Brown. The one who all the tourists come to hear about. The one whose statue looms over Josh’s house. Why does he seem to haunt Josh and his whole family? When the fancy Richmonds come to town and move right next door, their presence forces Josh to find the answers and stand up to the secrets of the House, to his father—and to John Brown, too! The historic village of Harpers Ferry comes alive in this young boy’s brave search for answers and a place of his own in this brilliant first novel by John Michael Cummings.

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0399250549, Hardcover)

John Michael Cummings (born 1963 in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia) is an American short story writer and novelist. His short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.

Cummings lives in Orlando, Florida, with his cat Sentry.

From School Library Journal

Grade 7–10—Josh lives in Harpers Ferry, WV, in an aging limestone house with his two bullying older brothers, timid mother, and tyrannical father. Known for its connections to legendary historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass, the town attracts many visitors. Living in its fishbowl atmosphere brings shame and anger to Josh's father but evokes joy and creativity in their new neighbors, the Richmonds. Josh envies everything about Luke Richmond. He envies his new friend's normal brothers, kind father, and beautiful house, which is almost an exact duplicate of the abandoned house Josh's father grew up in on the outskirts of town. Explanations for his father's anger, the abandoned house, and other family secrets are revealed just as Josh's world comes crashing down around him. The pacing of the story is slow and the characters are one-dimensional and oftentimes stereotypical. The metaphors involving John Brown are often forced and the historical relationship between Brown's acts and Josh's experiences will be lost on many teens. The author attempts to address too many conflicts—family dysfunction, corruption in the Catholic Church, John Brown's legacy—and fails to bring about a convincing resolution to any of them. While there is some action and adventure, this title will appeal to a limited number of young adults.—Lynn Rashid, Marriots Ridge High School, Marriotsville, MD

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:30 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, twelve-year-old Josh uncovers family secrets involving his overly strict father, whose anger threatens to tear the family apart.

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