Readers of “Firebrand,” the story of Kansas free-state fighter August Bondi, will find the silhouette of a flame at the top of each chapter.
Perhaps that’s because Bondi, the European-born protagonist of the new Bleeding Kansas novel for young adults, keeps insisting on jumping into the fire.
“What would it be like to grow up through this turbulent time in history, always having to decide whether you are just going to live your life or follow your conscience?” asks Aaron Barnhart, the former Star television critic who wrote the book.
“There are so many opportunities where Bondi could have turned away from all of this and just enjoyed his freedom in America.
“But he kept choosing to go back to the struggle.”
Born in Vienna, Bondi in 1848 had served in the ranks of student revolutionaries battling Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich before conditions grew grave and Bondi’s father moved the family to the United States.
Bondi’s first sight in America proved a jarring one: slaves toiling in a Louisiana sugar processing plant.
The reality of slave labor shook Bondi. After initially settling in St. Louis, he moved to Kansas Territory in 1855 and went on to be one of three Jewish immigrants to fight alongside abolitionist John Brown.
Both the 1856 battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie, featuring free state supporters facing off against pro-slavery forces, are dramatized in “Firebrand.” So is Bondi’s 1860 wedding to Henrietta Einstein in Leavenworth. Although there was no rabbi present, Bondi did crush one of the Einsteins’ last goblets under his heel.
During the Civil War, Bondi served in the 5th Kansas Cavalry.
He maintained an Underground Railroad station in Greeley, Kan., and later served as Saline County probate judge and Salina postmaster. He died in 1907.
Bondi had told his own story in an autobiography published posthumously, and Lloyd Alexander, who wrote novels for young readers, had written a version of the Bondi story, “Border Hawk,” in 1958.
Alexander’s novel had fallen out of copyright, and Barnhart had contacted the author about possibly re-publishing it.
But Barnhart and his wife, Diane Eickhoff, author of “Revolutionary Heart,” a 2006 biography of 19th-century Kansas suffragist and free-state supporter Clarina Nichols, had begun to ponder publishing stories for young adults.
Other projects intervened, such as researching and writing “The Big Divide,” a 2013 glove-compartment-size reference book of Civil War-era sites in Kansas and Missouri.
“Then Diane suggested that I re-imagine Bondi’s story for today’s readers,” Barnhart said.
“We realized that moving into young adult was not only a good opportunity for us, but it reflected everything we wanted to do in the humanities. We wanted to tell stories like these to the next generation of readers.”
Barnhart and Eickhoff recently re-directed their Quindaro Press, established in 2004 to publish history for adults, to publish nonfiction and history-based fiction for young readers.
“Kids want to know about kids who came before them and what their lives were like,” Barnhart said.
“Young adult is the only genre right now in publishing that is growing double digits every year, and that is because the storytelling has been very good. But it’s almost all fiction right now, and meanwhile history has been completely revolutionized in the last 20 years by great storytellers like David McCullough.
“Our proposition is that kind of great storytelling will be welcomed in the young adult sphere, particularly by people who have gotten tired of all the dystopias.”
For more info, go to quindaropress.com.