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The Mapmaker's Children: An Historical Novel with Current Relevance

Mapmaker’s Children

Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children is a good historical novel involving Sarah Brown, daughter of radical abolitionist John Brown who, with his sons and others, raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in October 1859, planning to arm slaves with seized weapons.  The raid was thwarted by farmers, militiamen, and Marines led by Robert E. Lee.  Brown was hanged for his crime in December 1859.

Sarah Brown was also an abolitionist whom McCoy describes as having more wisdom than her father. Sarah’s story begins with her recovery from an illness that leaves her with a heart-wrenching condition that requires a life purpose different than the one she had imagined. Influenced by her father’s abolitionist cause, Sarah first makes understandable drawings for the coded maps her father gives to those using the Underground Railroad, the covert 19th-century system of safe houses and routes leading to non-slavery states or Canada. McCoy skillfully outlines Sarah’s growing ideas about freedom and her education and artistic ability important to the abolitionist cause. Particularly fine are McCoy’s depictions of the mores, conventions, and hardships of Sarah Brown’s life via her correspondence with Freddy, a fellow abolitionist and love interest.

Had McCoy written just about Sarah Brown, The Mapmaker’s Children would have been a better read for me. The inclusion of a story about a present-day West Virginia woman with fertility and marital issues detracts from and slows down the Sarah Brown narrative despite some historical connections to it. However, McCoy’s telling of Sarah’s life before, during, and after the Civil War is both compelling and honorific and renewed my interest in Brown’s extant artwork remembered from my African-American History studies.

Well-written historical fiction can lead to further facts on any subject and Sarah McCoy has ably contributed to that ideal with The Mapmaker's Children. In the author’s note section, McCoy states that she “…did not set out to write a biographical account of Sarah Brown…” and that she “…took liberties with some of the historical events and facts” and was “more concerned with Sarah’s heart….” To that end, McCoy depicts Sarah as a woman of exceptional empathy, grace, and strength in a divisive social time that took friends and family from her life. Overall, The Mapmaker’s Children is a good book with enough facts to illuminate the life of a heroine dedicated to the end of slavery in the United States.