Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks *****

 cloudsplitterThis book is a novel based on what truth is available. The story centers on Owen Brown, the youngest and last living son of John Brown. What I was looking for, of course, was information about John Brown himself. However, because he understood the need for secrecy in his movements, considered himself (and usually really was) a hunted man, he did not leave copious journals. In fact, writing was not one of his talents. What he did care about were the 3 million men, women and children shackled to the plantation system, sometimes literally. He was the only white man recorded in history to have been friends (real friends) with Black people, who understandably were deeply suspicious.

Telling it all through Owen’s eyes is a strong device. Banks is a really good writer, and I think this is my favorite among his published works.

The question that hangs in the air for historians interested in this time period, and in Brown in particular, has always been whether he was sane or a madman (and as a history teacher, I have to say that at least one text mentions him only briefly, and comes down strongly on the side of his being a crazy man).

There is one undeniable fact, whichever side one takes: he was the first white man to kill and die for Black men. At that time, and for a long time after, his name carried great respect among Black men and women in the U.S. I am inclined to agree with them.

In these modern times, we know that it is possible to be mentally ill, and yet not be unable to function. I’m willing to bet that most families, if you trace the lines hard and long enough, will have at least one such person. And reading this novel convinced me that this was the case with John Brown.

Owen’s life was not an attractive one. At times, it appeared that their father had deserted the family; he would go away on one religious/political (for Brown, they were inseparable) mission or another, and not come back for years. There were times that the children of the family nearly starved to death, and their lives were not only desperately poor, but beset by constant danger. The stress alone might be enough to unhinge almost anyone.

I think I should leave the story as Banks tells it to the reader. His prose is brilliant and compelling. This is a very long book, but I finished it pretty quickly, because I couldn’t leave this family in danger until I had seen the very end. Banks brings characters alive in a way few writers do. I was a member of the Brown family until the book was over; their struggle became mine, and each poor decision made me flinch and my stomach felt leaden. Doom!

It also left me with the question we can never answer: what if Brown had waited another (roughly) ten years to lead the revolt? Might he have met with greater success?

If you like seeing characters developed well and also like historical fiction when it is done well, this book is terrific. (It is also very large, and heavy. If you have a nook or Kindle and it is available, consider reading it that way).

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