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Cloudsplitter: A Novel Paperback – January 27, 1999

4.1 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

At first glance, aside from the setting, this massive novelized life of Abolitionist John Brown, told from the viewpoint of one of his sons, has nothing in common with Banks's book of outlaw excess, Rule of the Bone (HarperCollins, 1995). Yet both deal with single-mindedness, rebellion, and codes?except that Brown's versions of these are more honorable (he would have agreed with Dylan that "to live outside the law you must be honest"). This book has all the stark beauty of the Adirondacks setting and of Brown's religion, and the elderly, reclusive narrator's coming to terms with himself and his father is an achievement in its own right. Besides, like the works of Thomas Mallon and Thomas Gifford, this is not just a fine novel (and a wonderfully structured one at that) but a way to participate in history. Recommended, without hyperbole, for all collections.
-?Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Oswego, N.Y.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 768 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1st HarperPerennial Ed edition (January 27, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060930861
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060930868
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #160,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Russell Banks is the author of sixteen works of fiction, many of which depict seismic events in US history, such as the fictionalized journey of John Brown in Cloudsplitter. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes, and two of his novels-The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction-have been made into award-winning films. His forthcoming novel, The Reserve, will be published in early 2008. President of the International Parliament of Writers and former New York State Author, Banks lives in upstate New York.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
The book is an interesting novelistic look at John Brown and what led up to the raid on Harpers Ferry, told from the point of view of one of his sons. It tends to get repetitious and had far too many sermons for my tastes. Still, an inside look at a history I knew little about. However I got the book on Kindle and it was a mess. Typos on just about every page. The word 'man's' was spelled 'manis' through out the book. Then in the last quarter the entire Harpers Ferry section was repeated twice. I think this is a terrible disservice to the author and all his hard work. There is no justification for a book to be sold and go out to the public in this condition.
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Format: Paperback
Do you remember at school when there was something that you didn't quite understand - usually algebra for me - and everybody else seemingly did? The last thing to do was to put your hand up and ask the teacher for clarification, thus one would stay quiet rather than be viewed as the class dunce. The psychology of my school days apart, the reading of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks has left me with a similar feeling. The book has received a great many plaudits and I don't quite understand why. So I think maybe it's just me, that maybe I'm just missing something. But unlike my algebra classes I like to put my hand up!
Described on its cover as `a splendid epic' and ` A great American novel' when I finished it's mammoth 758 pages I agreed with some of these assessments and indeed still do. However, with the reflection of a couple of weeks maybe rather than the pleasure of completion what I actually was feeling the relief of completion.
Written from the perspective of Owen Brown, son of John Brown there is a great deal within the pages of Cloudsplitter that can be admired. It is in many instances well written, evocative, moving and extremely powerful. But the flip side is that it is also repetitive, boring, difficult to read and at times sleep inducing. The strength of the novel is in its depth of description both in terms of events and environments. The reader gains an understanding of the hardships of existing in certain parts of 19th century America. However, for this reader there is a vast difference between depth of description and length of description. On occasions I felt length replaced depth and furthermore became frustrated at attempts to flood me with language rather than lead me with it.
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Format: Paperback
I do not like the idea of heros; but Banks is able to humanize his characters so deeply and movingly that there is nothing else to call them. Instead of a vacuous glory like that ascribed to the so-caled founding fathers of the United States in American high school history classrooms, Banks presents us with Owen and John Brown, full of doubts and weaknesses, yet able to achieve amazing ends regardless. For these characters, bravery and integrity means something. For example, much confusion has surrounded the Pottawatomie Massacre carried out by John and Owen; it was a horrible deed, cold, ruthless, and terrorist. It is to Banks' credit that he develops his characters so well that this incident can be dealt with clearly. Reading Cloudsplitter, we can get a picture of how the real occurence might have happened.
Nearly everything about this book hits the mark. It is well-researched (although if you want to know the true history of these stories, you should look elsewhere, since Banks at times diverges from the record). The language Banks uses is appropriate to the subject, as is the epic length and scope of the work. The issues of racism are handled in their unresolved complexity, making the novel eminently useful for those living in the US today. The novel integrates broad, important ideas about spirituality, identity, and power with the emotional and psychological eruptions of all-too human beings in a way that will perhaps make it a classic statement about the human condition.
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Format: Paperback
A thoroughly meticulously and hugely ambitious telling of John Brown's life, culminating in the bloody rebellion at Harper's Ferry.
Russell Banks strays from his normal storytelling formula in Cloudsplitter; this novel reads like a well researched piece of historical fiction. Banks concentrates not only on capturing the characters with accuracy and depth (which he accomplishes here as in his other novels) but also on painting the mood and character of the time itself. This is the story not only of Owen and John Brown, but of pre-Civil War America itself.
At 758 pages it isn't a quick read, and the characters develop more slowly than they do in his other novels, but I never found the book to be needlessly verbose. We get a picture of John Brown that is comprehensive and complete, warts and all. And we also get an interesting look at the institution of chattel slavery in the United States, its crushing effectiveness, and the racial norms of the time.
Brown is painted as a man of principle, but a fanatic nonetheless. His power over his small band of followers is based largely on his overwhelming charisma, not on his vision or his doomed mission. The novel is based on actual events and therefore the reader knows how the action will end before it even begins, but Banks manages to keep the suspense building.
Banks employs some strange tactics in this novel, including a risky "out of body" experience that mixes an element of fantastic into his otherwise literal and meticulous storytelling (you might think you've wandered into a Rushdie or Gabrial Marquez novel). But somehow it all works. In summary: an interesting and challenging novel.
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