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Cloudsplitter: A Novel by Russell Banks
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Cloudsplitter: A Novel (1998)

by Russell Banks

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,387298,567 (3.87)156
  1. 10
    Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (amyblue)
    amyblue: Midnight Rising is the true story of the Harper's Ferry raid, told by the fantastic Tony Horwitz and Cloudsplitter is the fictionalized account of John Brown's life by Russell Banks.
  2. 00
    John Brown by W. E. B. Du Bois (edwinbcn)
  3. 00
    The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (edwinbcn)
  4. 00
    John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds (sipthereader)
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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
(40) This is quite a book. 760 pages of closely spaced small typeface. It took me forever to read and I often interspersed other reading or only read small chunk. It is definitely fine writing, but dense and slow to develop. This is a biographical novel of John Brown the famous, or infamous abolitionist that conducted the raid at Harper's Ferry that is said to have sparked the Civil War. It is told to us by his surviving son reflecting on his father's actions and his relationship with his father many years later. John Brown is portrayed as a fascinating character - part religious fanatic, part renaissance man, with a dash of loving father mixed in. He seemingly was a courageous visionary standing up and fighting for what was just - the end of slavery. But, his zealotry and his egomania along with his bloody actions serve to vilify him.

I have to say, I mostly come down on the side of crazy villain despite the righteousness of his cause - the ends did not justify the means. And interesting Owen's overarching theme that loyalty to family is almost a form of slavery.

Anyway, I digress. The novel is powerful and transformative, but tedious and repetitive at times. Owen is a sympathetic character and one wishes he could have broken free. I think this is an important novel about race from the white perspective - Lyman and Owen's relationship leaves us much to ponder. Will we ever be post-racial in this country? This book suggests we will not.

In any event, if one is ever depressed about the culture of divisiveness in this country; we can feel better at least that it is not the 1850's. A rewarding reading experience that is worth the time commitment, even if it is not always enjoyable. Recommended for lovers of the Civil War time period and historical fiction with gravitas and literary merit. ( )
  jhowell | Aug 24, 2019 |
Excerpts from my original GR review (Oct 2012):
- This 1998 novel is a slow burn of a story. John Brown is one of the more unique, legendary, tragic figures of American history. A man who, fanatically guided by God's word, was determined beyond all reason to put an end to the sorry institution of slavery. His life is tailor-made for a fictional examination, and Banks smartly illuminates Brown from the vantage point of an aged, remorseful son Owen Brown, who narrates from his hardscrabble cabin in California many years after the tumult.
- Owen paints his father as a stern, devoutly Christian taskmaster. The Old Man makes a semi-permanent home in New York state, near a mountain whose Iroquois name means "Cloudsplitter" and, purposefully, near a free black settlement coined "Timbuktoo". This is underground railroad territory, and Brown is steel set on whisking as many runaways to the Canada border as his energies allow, putting he and his followers in mortal danger time and again.
- Through it all, Owen is the obedient son, enabler, and trusted lieutenant to "Father". We hear his private doubts, questioning whether he should quit the cause and settle into a pastoral farming life with a married brother in Ohio. We see the bloody outcome on the horizon, as if ordained, as Brown becomes more embittered and inflamed by the complacency of the Federals in the face of a thriving evil.
- When the free-state vs slave-state fury bleeds into Kansas Territory, Brown is resolute that "we must strike pure terror into their hearts", and so the swords are drawn. Plans are soon devised for a daring invasion of the Federal arsenal in a narrow-canyoned town on headlands of the Potomac, where "Osawatomie" Brown's little band will empower an enslaved mass to break their shackles for eternity.
- I thoroughly enjoyed this.. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Mar 2, 2018 |
“Of all the animals on this planet, we are surely the nastiest, the most deceitful, the most murderous and vile. Despite our God, or because of him. Both.”

John Brown. Those simple words, still conjure up so many conflicting images: abolitionist, terrorist, crusader, madman, insurrectionist and martyr. It still resonates, a century and a half after his death.

There have been many books written on Brown and this is Banks epic, take on this man's story. It is told entirely through the eyes of his third son, Owen, who somehow survived and escaped the raid on Harper's Ferry. He spent the rest of his life as a sheepherder in California.
Yes, this is fiction, something clearly stated in the foreward, but the amount of research Banks must have mounted, is truly astounding and his writing is robust, fluid and beautifully-rendered. A true labor of love. An over-looked American classic.

“ We pass between sea and sky with unaccountable, humiliating ease, as if there were no firmament between the firmaments, no above or below, here or there, now or then, with only the feeble conventions of language, our contrived principles, and our love of one another's light to keep our own light from going out; abandon any one of them, and we dissolve in darkness like salt in water.” ( )
2 vote msf59 | Nov 11, 2017 |
work of fiction that tells the story of John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame. The story is told by his Owen Brown. It was interesting, good work of prose but it was a bit of work to get through. It was a refresher of history that I did not have much recall. The author is pretty adamant that it was a work of fiction, but if this is anywhere near the truth, this family suffered from mental illness. Another thought I have on this book is that while John Brown may have been passionate about antislavery, and claimed to be hearing from God, he was twisting scripture to fit his need and another point is he may have been fighting for blacks, he did not understand blacks. This may this be the John Brown of the book and not the real John Brown but he was violent and judgmental and did not follow the scriptures commandment to love others.

I do think this is a work of prose and not one of plot. Characters were developed in general. The story goes back in history as it is being told in the present old age of Owen who is the narrator. As the narrator, I mostly found Owen to be unlikeable. He had a lot of issues. The son seems to think everything is about him and that his dad liked a black man more than he liked his son (Owen).

Famous people mentioned in the book include Frederick Douglas, Nathanial Hawthorn (the sister-in-law in the book was not a real person), Grimke Sisters.

Quotes: "Ameria is a Christian nation. She is indeed, he said, or ought to be. It was surely meant to be." Pg 383
"negroes did not need white people to love them" page 413
"The matter of deference and sameness", "If you yourself are not a victim, you cannot claim to see the world as the victim does", "Amongst negroes, a white man is always white. Page 420

The author writes about people on the fringe of society, marginalized people. The Brown family especially Owen was such a person. Owen Brown was the third son of John Brown. He managed to escape from Harper's Ferry and according to info on line he served in the Civil War for the Union Army. He died at 64 of pneumonia and was living in California. ( )
  Kristelh | Mar 26, 2016 |
4 stars
I really enjoyed the story especially the early parts dealing with living from the resources of the land and the speculation with money. It was also a gripping introduction to the Brown family and their involvement in the Abolitionist movement preceding the civil war.

Full review to follow here soon http://thereadersroom.org/ ( )
  BookWormM | Feb 20, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
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Epigraph
. . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
JOB 1:16
Dedication
For C.T., the beloved,
and in memory of William Matthews (1942 - 1997)
First words
Upon waking this cold, gray morning from a troubled sleep, I realized for the hundredth time, but this time with deep conviction, that my words and behavior towards you were disrespectful, and rude and selfish as well.
This is a work of the imagination. (Author's Note)
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Book description
A triumph of the imagination and a masterpiece of modern storytelling, Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America's most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter is dazzling in its re-creation of the political and social landscape of our history during the years before the Civil War, when slavery was tearing the country apart. But within this broader scope, Russell Banks has scenes of domestic life, of violence and action in battle, of romance and familial life and death that make the reader feel in astonishing ways what it was like to be alive in that time. (back of book)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060930861, Paperback)

The cover of Russell Banks's mountain-sized novel Cloudsplitter features an actual photo of Owen Brown, the son of John Brown--the hero of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" whose terrorist band murdered proponents of slavery in Kansas and attacked Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 on what he considered direct orders from God, helping spark the Civil War.

A deeply researched but fictionalized Owen narrates this remarkably realistic and ambitious novel by the already distinguished author of The Sweet Hereafter. Owen is an atheist, but he is as haunted and dominated by his father, John Brown, as John was haunted by an angry God who demanded human sacrifice to stop the abomination of slavery. Cloudsplitter takes you along on John Brown's journey--as period-perfect as that of the Civil War deserter in Cold Mountain--from Brown's cabin facing the great Adirondack mountain (called "the Cloudsplitter" by the Indians) amid an abolitionist settlement the blacks there call "Timbuctoo," to the various perilous stops of the Underground Railroad spiriting slaves out of the South, and finally to the killings in Bloody Kansas and the Harpers Ferry revolt. We meet some great names--Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a (fictional) lover of Nathaniel Hawthorne--but the vast book keeps a tight focus on the aged Owen's obsessive recollections of his pa's crusade and the emotional shackles John clamped on his own family.

Banks, a white author, has tackled the topic of race as impressively as Toni Morrison in novels such as Continental Drift. What makes Cloudsplitter a departure for him is its style and scope. He is noted as an exceptionally thorough chronicler of America today in rigorously detailed realist fiction (he championed Snow Falling on Cedars). Banks spent half a decade researching Cloudsplitter, and he renounces the conventional magic of his poetical prose style for a voice steeped in the King James Bible and the stately cadences of 19th-century political rhetoric. The tone is closer to Ken Burns's tragic, elegiac The Civil War than to the recent crazy-quilt modernist novel about John Brown, Raising Holy Hell.

A fan of Banks's more cut-to-the-chase, Hollywood-hot modern style may get impatient, but such readers can turn to, say, Gore Vidal's recently reissued Lincoln, which peeks into the Great Emancipator's head with a modern's cynical wit. Banks's narrator is poetical and witty at times--Owen notes, "The outrage felt by whites [over slavery] was mostly spent on stoking their own righteousness and warming themselves before its fire." Yet in the main, Banks writes in the "elaborately plainspoken" manner of the Browns, restricting himself to a sober style dictated by the historical subject.

Besides, John Brown's head resembles the stone tablets of Moses. You do not penetrate him, and you can't declare him mad or sane, good or evil. You read, struggling to locate the words emanating from some strange place between history, heaven, and hell.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:44 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A triumph of the imagination and a masterpiece of modern storytelling, Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America's most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter is dazzling in its re-creation of the political and social landscape of our history during the years before the Civil War, when slavery was tearing the country apart. But within this broader scope, Russell Banks has given us a riveting, suspenseful, heartbreaking narrative filled with intimate scenes of domestic life, of violence and action in battle, of romance and familial life and death that make the reader feel in astonishing ways what it is like to be alive in that time.

» see all 4 descriptions

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