The Barnes & Noble Review
Abolitionist John Brown, who some historians believe was a pivotal instigator of the Civil War, is at the center of Russell Banks's latest novel, Cloudsplitter. Deeply researched and peopled with a cast of characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter evocatively brings to life the story of a devoutly religious and devoted family man, whose unbridled wrath over the immorality of slavery helped shape the course of historical events in his lifetime and well beyond.
Owen Brown, the only son of John to survive the Harper's Ferry raid, narrates the tale. At the request of a John Brown biographer, Owen who, guilt-ridden and fiercely resentful, is living out his days as a virtual hermit in the hills of southern California reluctantly relives his childhood and early manhood at the side of his now legendary father. Through Owen's recollections, John Brown is revealed to be a deeply flawed and stubborn man rather than the god history has chosen to memorialize.
From the raw material of history and his own prodigious artistic imagination, Banks deftly molds a compelling and heartbreaking story out of the shadowy fragments of one family's life. An all-too-often-forgotten event from the annals of American history is brought to life in Banks's climactic description of the slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry a worthwhile read.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneUpon waking this cold, gray morning from a troubled sleep, I realized for the hundredth time, but this time with deep conviction, that my words and behavior towards you were disrespectful, and rude and selfish as well. Prompting me now, however belatedly, to apologize and beg your forgiveness.
You were merely doing your duty, as assistant to your Professor Villard, who in turn is engaged in a mighty and important task, which is intended, when it has been completed, not only to benefit all mankind but also to cast a favorable light upon the family of John Brown. And since I myself am bothboth a man and a member of the family of John Brownthen I myself stand to benefit twice over from your and Professor Villard's honest labors.
Self-defeating, then, as well as cruel and foolish of me, to thwart you. Especially when you are so clearly an open-minded, sincere, and intelligent seeker of the truth, the whole truthso help me, Miss Mayo, I am sorry.
I ask you to understand, however: I have remained silent for so many years on all matters touching on Father and our family that by the time you arrived at my cabin door I had long since ceased even to question my silence. I greeted your polite arrival and inquiries with a policy made nearly half a century ago, a policy neither questioned nor revised in all the years between. Policy had frozen into habit, and habit character.
Also, in the years since the events you are investigating, my life has been that of an isolato, a shepherd on a mountaintop, situated as far from so-called civilization as possible, and it has made me unnaturally brusque and awkward. Nor am I used,especially, to speaking with a young woman.
I remind you of all this, of my character, I guess you could call it, so that you can place my remarks, memories, and revelationseven the documents that you requested and which I will soon sort out and provide for youinto their proper context. Without continuous consideration of context, no truth told of my father's life and work can be the whole truth. If I have learned nothing else in the forty years since his execution, I have learned at least that. It is one of the main reasons for my having kept so long so silent. I have sat out here tending my sheep on my mountaintop, and the books and newspaper articles and the many thick volumes of memoirs have come floating down upon my head like autumn leaves year after year, and I have read them all, the scurrilous attacks on Father and me and my brothers in blood and in arms, as well as the foolish, dreamy, sentimental celebrations of our "heroism" and "manly courage" in defense of the Negrooh, I have read them all! Those who made Father out to be mad, I have read them. Those who called him a common horse thief and murderer hiding beneath the blanket of abolitionism, I read them, too. Those who met Father and me and my brothers but once, on a cloudy, cold December afternoon in Kansas, and later wrote of us as if they had ridden with us for months all across the territoryyes, those, too. And those who, on hearing of Father's execution, wept with righteousness in their pious Concord parlors, comparing him to the very Christ on His very crossI read them, too, although it was hard not to smile at the thought of how Father himself would have viewed the comparison. Father believed in the incomparable reality of Christ, after all, not the incorporeal idea. Father's cross was a neatly carpentered scaffold in Virginia, not a spiked pair of rough timbers in Jerusalem.
Forgive me, I am wandering. I want to tell you everythingnow that I have decided to tell a little. It's as if I have opened a floodgate, and a vast inland sea of words held back for half a lifetime has commenced to pour through. I knew it would be like this. And that's yet another reason for my prolonged silencemade worse, made more emphatic and burdensome and, let me say, made confusing, by the irony that the longer I remained silent, the more I had to tell. My truth has been held in silence for so long that it has given the field over entirely to those who have lied and risks having become a lie itself, or at least it risks being heard as such. Perhaps even by you. Thus, although I have begun at last to speak, and to speak the truth, it feels oddly and at the edges as if I am lying.
I say again that I am sorry that I rebuffed you the other day. You are young and may not know, but solitude, extended for a sufficiently long time, becomes its own reward and nourishment. And an old man's voice aloud can become repugnant to his own ears, which is perhaps why I have chosen to write to you, and to write at as great a length as will prove necessary, instead of merely speaking with you and politely answering your questions in person as you wished. The anxious bleat of my sheep, the bark of my dog, and the gurgle and crack of my firethese, for decades, are practically the only voices that I have heard and spoken back to, until they have become my own voice. It is not a voice suitable for a lengthy interview with a young, educated woman like yourself come all the way out here from the city of New York to my hill in Altadena, California.