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A Volcano Beneath the Snow

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin
Knopf, April 2014
Reviewed from final copy

JOHN BROWN TAKE THE WHEEL is probably not how you expected this review to start, but let’s embrace the unexpected and just go with it. With four stars and some rave reviews happening, Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow is definitely getting some love here and there.

Let’s start with my favorite stuff. I love how very thorough Marrin allows his text to be. Volcano reminds me of a reverse version of Aronson’s Sugar Changed the World — both are books that illustrate how history is really everything: science and technology, people and decisions, philosophy, psychology, and events. Sugar, of course, uses one product to look at the history of an entire hemisphere. Here, Marrin is using the lens of John Brown to look at slavery and the US Civil War, and so we have a book that uses a particular biography to examine history. Marrin is respectful of both the subject and the reader with this approach, and he uses it to great effect, covering a lot of ground. For being a history of antislavery movement in the US, this has a wonderfully global perspective; nothing is allowed to be described in a vacuum. Volcano is full of context.

There are liberal amounts of footnotes and endnotes (nice, long bibliography), and lots of pictures to accompany the text. Marrin is judicious in using his source material; there are carefully chosen quotes and footnotes that work well to bring the history to life.

As far as flaws go, my gripes are minimal. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a tone to the word choices that make this read feel slightly younger. Or maybe it’s that he used exclamation points a few times, and that stood out to me? (I KNOW, YOU GUYS. I KNOW. Deploy irony now: !!!!) I’ll be the first to admit that’s a pretty superficial (and likely personal) problem to have. Overall, this is a solid read…but it’s a strong year for nonfiction. Romanovs is getting a lot of love, of course (I’ve been putting it off because it’s already been covered here; I’m sure I’ll get to it in January). Obviously we cannot forget Brown Girl Dreaming (another read that I’ll get to). Karyn had previously pegged How I Discovered Poetry as a dark horse contender, and I would love (love) a surprise medal awarded to Beyond Magenta (looooooove). Volcano is thoughtful and generally respectful to its audience. Do you think it will be in the final five come January?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. I’m a big, big fan of this book and so very glad to see you considering it here. I do agree it has stiff competition in terms of nonfiction this year, but even if it doesn’t place award-wise, hope people do take a good look at it.

    I just so liked the way Marrin uses the individual Brown as a fulcrum on which to explore slavery, politics, war, religion, terrorism, and so much more. Since it is better than what I can dash off now, here’s a bit of what I wrote on my blog about this title, “By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating, and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.”

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