It is very tempting to say: “This book is a lot like Huckleberry Finn, but on land, with lots of horses and guns!”
However, amid the humor, the horrors and the main character’s many dangerous, coming-of-age adventures, readers also get close, unnerving looks at a very rough, very dark chapter in American history.
During a seven-year period leading up to the Civil War, violent clashes in Kansas and parts of Missouri pitted anti-slavery “Free-Staters” against pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” It was gang warfare on horseback, and it also was a proxy conflict that demonstrated what was about to happen on a gigantic scale once the North and South split and took up arms against each other.
In Bleeding Kansas, a Quaker youth from Pennsylvania, James Deeter, heads west, trying to avoid being drafted into the Union Army. But Deeter makes some naive and unfortunate decisions along the way. To survive, he finds himself suddenly facing his worst nightmare: He must ride in raids as part of the pro-Confederate gang known as Quantrill’s Raiders.
Eisenstark’s fiction in this book can stretch credulity at times, and it relies on a few coincidences and confluences of historic characters. Yet those just enhance the dark humor and the moments of real horror and surprise that keep coming as the well-written work of history-based fiction unfolds.
Memo to producers: Bleeding Kansas has the makings of an action-packed movie for a rising young star.