“Firebrand” by Aaron Barnhart

Firebrand by Aaron BarnhartMy local library has started a new book club called “Check Yo’Shelf,” described as “a teen book club for adults.” The flyer is illustrated with covers of YA books that have been read by huge numbers of over-18s, including John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

The YA genre has more to offer than tearjerkers and dystopian fiction, however. My pal Aaron Barnhart (yes, full disclosure, the author is a longtime friend of mine) has started a new publishing venture, Quindaro Press, with a mission to produce works of history aimed at younger readers, but I suspect they’d love to reach adults as well.

Aaron and his wife live in Kansas City, and a few years ago, they published a travel guide to the Kansas-Missouri border region called The Big Divide. Barnhart’s new work of historical fiction, Firebrand, takes place in the same area and deals with the struggles to bring Kansas into the Union as a free state, as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish man named August Bondi.

Bondi was born in Vienna in 1833. When Bondi was just 15, he began to take part in a local wave of student protests, an attempt to bring democratic rule to Austria. His father felt the family would have a better life in America; initially, August was furious that he’d have to abandon the struggle in Vienna, but it didn’t take him long to get caught up in a new, equally dramatic fight for freedom on the other side of the Atlantic.

I must admit that I knew very little about the whole “Bleeding Kansas” confrontations of the pre-Civil War period (they pitted pro-slavery forces, who wanted Kansas to enter the U.S. as a state which allowed slavery, against anti-slavery “Free Staters”). I enjoyed learning a bit about this dramatic conflict, as seen through the eyes of a brave young man who becomes an ally of abolitionist John Brown.

One powerful scene demonstrates how Bondi, still a relative newcomer to the U.S., learns an important lesson. Bondi, working as a clerk on a riverboat, whips a black stevedore in an effort to get him to unload cargo faster:

“Massa,” said the stevedore, “you been the only one who never give me a whippin’. I surely thought you was different from the rest.”

While the stevedore was a free man, the incident served as a wake-up call to Bondi to look at the way slavery was accepted as normal in his new country. Whenever his riverboat pulled into a port, “the dock was crowded with white, well-to-do people. Always, always they had slaves in tow—men, women and children. At first the sight had startled him. Now, he hardly noticed them at all. And that’s just what people want you to do here.

Bondi’s shame causes him to leave the riverboat and eventually head for Kansas to fight against the pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” But he wasn’t done fighting: he served for three years with the Fifth Kansas Cavalry in the Civil War, leaving the battlefield only after he suffered a near-fatal injury.

Barnhart’s book is based on two sources: Bondi’s own autobiography and an earlier book for young readers, Border Hawk by Lloyd Alexander, which was published in 1957. I haven’t read Border Hawk, but apparently Barnhart’s version is heavier on the coming-of-age angle, and I would imagine the earlier book was written in a style that would not be as appealing to today’s readers. A longtime journalist and TV critic before he switched gears and started writing history, Barnhart crafts smooth, readable prose; his style is unfussy and easy to follow, while never feeling dumbed-down. (After reading a piece from Jewishmag.com on Bondi, it’s clear that the freedom fighter’s life took plenty of twists and turns that aren’t covered in Firebrand; getting the book down to an easily-digestible 160 pages must have been a challenge.)

Barnhart is trying to popularize the #YAHistorical hashtag to let people know about the wide variety of YA beyond vampires and wizards. He’s also started a monthly podcast about the genre, and Quindaro will be publishing a full slate of historical works. With Firebrand, they’re off to a great start, and deserve to be noticed by readers of all ages.

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