Although he has lived in New York for over a decade, Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., has not strayed from the mind of John Michael Cummings, a 44-year-old Park Slope resident whose debut novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, is set in his hometown.
For those who remember their elementary school history, Harper’s Ferry was made famous (or infamous, depending on the source) when abolitionist John Brown led an armed raid on the town’s armory in 1859.
The raid escalated tensions prior to the Civil War, and will go down as one of this country’s most significant moments.
Just as the controversial legacy of Brown haunts the United States – some view him as a hero, some as a precursor to modern-day terrorists – it also haunts Cummings’ semi-autobiographical book, a young adult coming of age novel.
Josh Connors, the book’s 13-year-old protagonist, lives across the street from the John Brown Wax Museum (which really does exist), where a wax figure of Brown glowers at him through a picture window.
With Brown’s righteous anger in one eye, Connors also has to contend with his father’s more arbitrary anger on the other.
A stern and restrictive man, Josh’s father is a man of rules: going to the Brown Museum or partaking in any of the town’s hokey Brown commercialization is off-limits. So are a lot of other things, like associating with the eccentric new neighbors next door.
Josh’s life is one of confinement: In short, he is enslaved, torn between the two poles of his father’s strictness and Brown’s homicidal indignation.
His negotiation of the two is the central conflict of the story. Along the way, the reader is treated to vivid character portrayals, loving descriptions of the mountainous West Virginia countryside, and no small amount of mystery and adventure.
Cummings has published short stories in more than 75 literary journals over the past 15 years including North American Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review.
A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his short story “The Scratchboard Project” received an honorable mention in “The Best American Short Stories, 2007.”
Cummings’ debut novel is also his first venture into the young adult (YA) genre. That is not to say that he originally intended it to be.
When he began the project seven years ago, he conceived it as a childhood memoir catered to adult readers.
“But I had to fictionalize it in order to save it. Life is often boring and doesn’t always make a good story,” he said.
“I re-worked it and re-worked it, and all of a sudden it fit into the YA market. I always thought YA would be too simple for me – there was no way my writing was for young adults. But I learned that it had nothing to do with marketing. It had to do with simple story dynamics. I found that very interesting, and humbling.”
John Michael Cummings will do multiple readings from his debut novel, The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group) in Brooklyn this month.
He will appear at Babbo’s Books (242 Prospect Park West) on June 12 at 8 p.m., and The Perch Café (365 5th Avenue) on June 17.
The book’s launch party will take place at Book Court (163 Court Street) on June 25.
A reading at Barnes and Noble (106 Court Street) has been scheduled for sometime in July, but a specific date has not yet been set.
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