The story of abolitionist John Brown, who led the 1859 insurrection at Harpers Ferry, has been both condemned and celebrated in history books and novels for years. In “The Mapmaker’s Children,” Sarah McCoy blends fact and fiction to create a compelling story of Brown’s equally courageous daughter Sarah.
As in her 2012 bestselling novel, “The Baker’s Daughter,” here McCoy deftly intertwines a historical tale with a modern one. In alternating chapters, she tells Sarah’s story and that of Eden Anderson, a young woman living outside Washington, D.C., in contemporary times. Gradually, the connection between the two women’s lives deepens, revealing shared experiences that resonate beyond any particular era.
Both women, for instance, struggle with fertility. Sarah Brown, in McCoy’s reimagining, suffers an illness as a teen that leaves her unable to have children. It’s a loss that transforms her life. She never marries and after the hanging of her father in 1859 devotes herself to helping others.
Like her father, Sarah is an abolitionist, but instead of guns, she wields a paintbrush to further the cause. She uses her artistic talents to create cryptic pictographs in which she hides safe house locations and directions north. There is some evidence that messages and maps were transported in dolls at the time, and McCoy creatively adapts this theory by having Sarah paint escape routes onto the heads of dolls. It’s a doll that links Sarah’s story to Eden’s modern life.
Reeling from several miscarriages, Eden discovers a porcelain doll’s head in the cellar of her home. She sets out, with the help of her 10-year-old neighbor, to discover the doll’s history. Why was it hidden? What is the purpose of the old key hidden inside the head? And what happened to the doll’s body?
As the women’s parallel stories unfold, McCoy artfully builds their bond . Sarah’s narrative, based on years of research as well as McCoy’s obvious admiration for her subject, is lovingly constructed. She dramatically documents the pre-Civil War era when America was “on the brink of gashing in two.”
Eden’s story, also passionately told, captures the importance of history and its legacy. As Eden moves forward with her life, she comes to realize, as Sarah does some 150 years before, that happiness is created in many ways by “accident, blessing in disguise, fate, fortune or happenstance.”
“The Mapmaker’s Children” not only honors the accomplishments of a little-known woman but also artfully demonstrates how fate carries us in unexpected directions, no matter how we might try to map out our lives.
Carol Memmott is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Virginia.
Saturday, at 3:15 p.m., Sarah McCoy will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, 31 S. Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md.
THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN
By Sarah McCoy
Crown. 311 pp. $25