Book Review (first appeared in Nebo,Spring 2008)
The Night I Freed John Brown (May 2008, Philomel Books) is the first young adult novel by John Michael Cummings, and I can honestly say that it is a must-read for young people as well as those who appreciate masterfully-constructed prose.
Based on Cummings novella The House of My Father, this novel tells the story of Josh Connors, a youth growing up in the tourism-centered town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The story is presented from Joshs perspective as he struggles with his domineering, antisocial father, who holds a grudge against the Harpers Ferry establishment for reasons unknown to Josh.
Josh is a fascinating protagonist in that he is still quite immature, which allows for his imagination to run wild. This trait is exemplified in his search for the fictional cowmint, a miraculous plant made up by his father. Joshs dogged efforts to find the mint eventually results in success, and his discovery manages to bring peace to his dysfunctional family, at least for a while.
The most interesting character in the novel is Bill Connors, the protagonists father. Constantly angry and fed up with the world, Bill is generally disapproving of everything from religion to the honored town hero of the past, John Brown. Due to his emotional distance and unwillingness to be open with his sons, his motivation for being so sickened with Harpers Ferry and the church are not made clear until the climax of the novel. Once his hidden backstory is made manifest, he proves to be a far more sympathetic character than either Josh or the readers could have imagined.
The novel takes plenty of time to set up its setting and characterseven the minor ones, which are all interesting and memorable. Joshs misadventures from one episode to another are often amusing and always enjoyable to read. Once the story reaches its climax, it takes a thrilling turn that serves as a worthy pay-off for the preceding events. In fact, if the book was difficult enough to put down before the last sixty pages, it is downright impossible to put down afterward. The dÃ©nouement is also very satisfying and wraps up the story nicely. Overall, the story is well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining.
The themes of restored faith and familial reconciliation are well-presented, and are neither too heavy-handed nor too underdeveloped. These themes should be easily recognizable and relatable to the young adult audience of the book. Ultimately, the novel should appeal to young readers and should provide enriching and inspiring ideas for them to consider.
Parents, teachers, and librarians should encourage young adults to read Cummings first novel. It is well-suited for their reading level and range of interests, and its underlying messages present the sort of encouragement that these youths need to persevere in their adolescent years. The only objection that some parents may have is the use of harsh language in the book, but this is done quite realistically, and to be fair, honestly. Also, despite the acts of mischief and vandalism that frequently occur throughout the book, Cummings makes no efforts to encourage such acts; therefore, this should not prove to be a problem, either.
From the detail-rich first chapter that transports the reader into this world, until the fulfilling conclusion that ties up the story threads efficiently, Cummings first novel is sure to be a delight to all who read it, and I wholeheartedly recommend this new book to bibliophiles young and old.