The story of Kansas abolitionist John Brown — the wild-eyed man who killed pro-slavery settlers in response to the sacking of Lawrence before the Civil War — has been told so many times he's now a historical figure of mythical proportions. Few people, however, know the story of August Bondi, who fought alongside Brown in less-murderous Free State skirmishes.
Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff figure that will change with a new biography of Bondi, the latest book hot off of Quindaro Press.
"August Bondi is a person who helps humanize the story of Bleeding Kansas in a way that the larger-than-life figure John Brown could not," says Barnhart.
Barnhart and Eickhoff operate Quindaro Press out of their home in Kansas City's Volker Neighborhood. Barnhart is the former TV critic for The Kansas City Star, and Eickhoff is a historian who used to work in the textbook publishing industry. They left their jobs a few years ago and started Quindaro Press, filling a niche by excavating stories from the region's dramatic past.
It started in 2006, with Eickhoff’s book about the frontier feminist Clarina Nichols. When she worked in the textbook industry, Eickhoff was always looking for good stories about women. But publishers only seemed interested in what she calls "the old warhorses."
"Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt," Eickhoff recites. "Those women made it on their own, but a lot of the women that are written about are the wives or the mothers of some famous man. Here was a woman nobody had ever heard of and I thought her story was worth telling."
They spent a lot of time thinking about how to publish it.
"I was never convinced academic publisher would be the right place for it," Barnhart says. "And I knew that, if commercial publishers considered lives like Clarina’s to be important, they would have already published them."
Barnhart and Eickhoff were both professional writers and editors, and Barnhart knew his way around desktop publishing software. So they published the Clarina Nichols story themselves: Revolutionary Heart.
"Within a year," Barnhart says, "we had gone through our first printing and were on to the second printing."
Barnhart and Eickhoff aren’t afraid of marketing and promotion. They got in the car and drove to speaking events, historical societies, libraries, coffee shops. Along the way, they conceived of, and wrote, a narrative and critical travel guide to historic sites along the Missouri-Kansas border.
That book, The Big Divide, did well too. They don’t want to release specifics, but Barnhart says their books have solid “in the thousands.”
"Those books sold very well," says Sarah Bagby, who owns Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita. “Regional titles are one of our best-selling sections, and Kansas stories are hard to come by. I just appreciate their ability to package a book and make it marketable.”
Bagby says she's excited about the next book from Quindaro Press. From talking to librarians, teachers, and the parents who were bringing their kids to readings, Barnhart and Eickhoff have decided to try for a new audience.
"We know there’s a lot of interest in telling stories to the next generation about our history," Barnhart says. "We know they’re interested in history. But we know growing up history is boring. Acts and facts, famous men doing famous things."
They saw an opportunity in the lucrative market for young-adult books.
"While other markets are declining, young adult is exploding," Barnhart says.
The exploding young-adult market is primarily for fiction, but they didn't want to do fantasy or dystopian novels. Their genre is history.
That's where August Bondi comes in. Born in Vienna in 1833, Bondi was a teenager enflamed by pro-democracy passion when violent revolution erupted in Europe.
"August has to be careful because he’s Jewish, and his father says, 'We gotta get out of here,' and they move to the United States," Barnhart says. "So this story, this journey involving a 14-year-old who becomes involved in front lines of revolution in Europe then a few years later is fighting alongside John Brown in Kansas was too good to pass up."
Bondi's story had been written twice before – once by August himself, before he died in 1907, and later by the well-known children’s book author Lloyd Alexander. It turned out the rights to Alexander’s book were in the public domain, so Barnhart adapted it for today’s young adults.
Quindaro Press released Bondi's story, Firebrand, on October 6.
Bondi, who lived most of his life in Salina, may never become as famous as John Brown, but at least he's no longer forgotten. In fact, he was never completely forgotten: He’s remembered at the Black Jack Battlefield National Historic Landmark near Baldwin City.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter at @cjjanovy.