1001 Book Review: Cloudsplitter Russell Banks
Book Worm and I review Russell Banks’ epic tale of the Brown family and we disagree. See what we thought of the book and let us know with whom you agree.
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Published in: 1999
Literary Awards: Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award 1999 & Audie Award for Fiction 1999.
Reviewed by: Book Worm and Jen
Find it here: Cloudsplitter
Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.
Book Worm’s Thoughts (4 stars): As a reader from England this was the first I had heard of John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry. This was a good and a bad thing. It was a good thing because the whole story was new to me and I found it very interesting and a bad thing because I have no idea how much is historically accurate.
I like the way Banks decided to use Owen Brown as the narrator, this gave him a way to show the reader the early details and daily life of the principle characters it also gave him a way to question the actions taken by John Brown and his family and with the benefit of hindsight to see what the ultimate result of those actions were.
While this is a weighty book at 758 pages, I found the narrative very easy to read, even though it did take a while for me to progress through the book. My favourite parts were the early life of the family watching them grow and change. John Brown was such an immense figure in the life of the family, almost a cult leader. It also gave me a new perspective on the abolitionists and the fight against slavery that preceded the civil war.
“Owen, thou hast still at times the voice of a child. Read these words, so that we may better hear in thy innocent voice their terrible, indicting evil”
“But from the tender shape of your inquiry when we met, I deduce that you and professor Villard believe my father to have been a great man. I’m not so sure I agree”
“But who amongst your new, young historians and biographers, even amongst those who loathe him or think him mad, has considered the price paid for that sort of greatness by those of us who were his family? Those of us who neither examined him from a safe distance, as you do, nor stood demurely in his protective shadow, as we have so often been portrayed, but who lived every day in the full glare of his light?”
“Only in an evil and inhuman land, Owen, is it a crime to slay the man who enslaves you. Remember that”
“Was our true nature that of the man who sacrifices himself and others for his principles; or was it that of the criminal? You could not tell it from our acts.”
“This is not Haiti or Jamaica, and the Northern States are not a separate nation than the Southern United States. It’s race John. Skin color and hair and physiognomy. You say us John and you mean all Americans willing to go to war to end slavery. But every other American who says us means race, means us white people, or us Negroes. You are a noble, good man. But you are nearly alone in this country. Even me, when I say us, I mean we Negroes.”
Jen’s Thoughts (3 stars): Cloudsplitter is a book I expected to love, yet I found myself struggling to read this giant tome. It took me an unprecedented 3 months to finish the book in part because I kept falling asleep reading it. I found the narrative style to be very dry, long-winded, and at times self-indulgent. Thus while the story was action packed, I found myself bored. I loved the premise of the book and thought the material was important but I just felt very emotionally detached from what would normally be emotionally evocative subject matter.
John Brown was in interesting and polarizing figure in history and this book delves into the notion of whether he was a martyr or a terrorist. He fought against slavery from a religious standpoint but also slaughtered many men in the name of abolishing freedom. Historians do typically attribute his actions as contributing to the start of the civil war. The story of the Brown family is an interesting one and historians generally agree that John Brown’s actions greatly influenced the start of the American Civil War. It should be noted however, that Banks takes a lot of liberties with the novel and this is very much a work of fiction and not a historical novel. People and events have been altered pretty significantly.
What the novel does do well is give us a real sense of what it would have been like to live with such a man as John Brown — to live in the household with someone whose convictions impact every element of their life.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: Cloudsplitter
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