ISBN is

978-0-06-016860-5 / 9780060168605

Cloudsplitter: A Novel

by

Publisher:Harper

Edition:Hardcover

Language:English

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About the book:

The cover of Russell Banks' mountain-sized novel Cloudsplitter features an actual photo of Owen Brown, the son of John Brown, hero of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". His 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 American Civil War.

A heavily researched but fictionalised Owen narrates this remarkably realistic and ambitious novel by the distinguished author ofThe Sweet Hereafter. Owen is an atheist, but he is as dominated by his father, John Brown, as John was haunted by the 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 Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain--from Brown's cabin facing the great Adirondack mountain (whose Native American name is "Cloudsplitter"), amid an abolitionist settlement called "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 does in earlier 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 today's USA in rigorously detailed realist fiction such as David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars) which Banks championed. 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' tragic, elegiac The Civil War than to Bruce Olds' recent crazy-quilt modernist novel about John Brown, Raising Holy Hell.

A fan of Banks' more cut-to-the-chase, Hollywood- hot modern style may get impatient, but such readers can turn to, say, Gore Vidal's reissued Lincoln, which peeks into the Great Emancipator's head with a modern's cynical wit. Banks' 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.

John Brown's head resembles the stone tablets of Moses. You do not penetrate him, and you cannot 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. --Tim Appelo

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