Firebrand

by Aaron Barnhart
First sentence: “The boy with the long black hair pushed his way through the shouting, jostling mass of students.”
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Content: There’s some fighting and battle scenes, but the language is simple(ish) and the book itself is short. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Fifteen-year-old August Bondi and his family are Jews who are getting by in early 19th-century in Vienna, Austria. Life is good until the law comes down against them, and the Vienna Uprising occurs in in 1848. August’s parents decide that life is too dangerous for their family, and so they flee to America where they hope to have a better life. After a harrowing journey, the family ends up in St. Louis, where August’s parents find work and a community. But August is still restless and settling down doesn’t suit him. So he heads out to the Kansas territory, where he discovers the fight between those who want Kansas to be a slave state and those who don’t. It’s a cause that August can get behind: he is more than willing to fight against slavery and for the freedom of all people. So, he joins up with John Brown and his sons, fighting back against those who would have Kansas be a slave state. It’s a dangerous business, but one that August is willing to sacrifice for. From there, he settles down with a wife and then joins the Greater Cause in the Civil War.

It’s not a bad book, overall, and August’s story (he’s a real person) is a good one to tell. My only problem is that this is really three books. The first book: August’s story back in Vienna. How did he become a part of the resistance? What was it that caught his eye? What was it like being a Jew in Vienna in the early 19th century? So many questions glossed over. The second book is August’s journey to America and perhaps his joining the Browns in their fight against slavery. And the third is August’s time in the Civil War. It’s not that Barnhart can’t write (he can, actually; there were parts of this that were quite interesting), it’s just that he tried to do too much in such a small book and I feel like it would have been better served spreading it out. (And I never think that!)

But it is a good story to tell; it’s always good to hear the lesser known stories of history. (Even if they are more white male stories.) And the fact that it’s set here in Kansas is good as well. But I feel like it could have been better.

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