The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harper's Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Brown's plan was to steal tens of thousands of rifles from the sleepy, rural federal armory. With them he would arm fugitive slaves against their so-called masters. The slaves were supposed to be awaiting the arms in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. It doesn't quite work out. Brown and 10 accomplises are captured, tried and strung up, and the raid becomes another source of animus between abolitionists and slave owners. Mr. McBride's National Book Award-winning novel--somehow, miraculously--makes tragicomedy out of the event.