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Monday, January 22, 2018

Cloudsplitter (1998) by Russell Banks

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Anti Slavery activist John Brown, executed after his failed effort to incite a slave insurrection in the American south. 

Book Review
Cloudsplitter (1998)
 by Russell Banks

  760 pages! Sitting in his Altadena shepherds hut, Owen Brown, the son of famed abolitionist John Brown, remembers the exploits of his father.   The format of Cloudsplitter is that of a series of letters written by Owen to a woman working for a professor writing a history of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement.   The legacy of John Brown is often equated with his martydom, executed for a failed raid on the Federal munitions facility in Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  The goal of Brown's raid was to start a slave revolt in the Southern United States. It's an episode with lasting resonance in American history, and a story that is often ignored because of the uncomfortable linkage between being on the "right" side of history (anti-slavery) using the "wrong" techniques (terrorism.)

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Owen Brown, son of John Brown and narrator of Cloudsplitter, the novel by Russell Banks
  Any student of history recognizes that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.   Within the United States that has always been balanced with a healthy respect for authority transmitted through the experience of land owners and professionals who valued the prospect of the stability that healthy government power can bring to economic endeavor.

  Russell Banks devotes the first half of Cloudsplitter to making the case that there was a link between John Brown's noted failure to grasp the intricacies of sophisticated economic activity and his intense zeal for combating the evils of slavery.  Brown, like many mid 19th century American bred radicals, suffered from the vagaries of the economic cycle, being forced into bankruptcy and losing property due to ill advised speculation prior to his rise to fame in "Bloody Kansas."

  Like many works of historical fiction, part of the pleasure is derirved from being in the drivers seat in terms of knowing how everything will turn out.  This is the opposite of the "thriller with a twist" category in terms of plot structure.  In Cloudsplitter, presumably every single person who sits down to read a door stop sized novel about John Brown knows how the raid on Harper's Ferry ends.

  Using Owen as the narrator gives the plot a "Fathers and Sons" theme that echoes 19th century Russian fiction, but the Browns are richly All-American.   Banks writes with an apparent mastery of the time and place, meaning that the reader is never bored.  Coming after their exploits in Kansas, the actual Harper's Ferry raid is a sad anti-climax.

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