Cloudsplitter: A Novel [NOOK Book]


A triumph of the imagination, rich in incident and beautiful in its detail, Cloudsplitter brings to life one of history's legendary figures--John Brown, whose passion to abolish slavery lit the fires of the American Civil War in a conflagration that changed civilization.

Winner of the 1999 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

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Cloudsplitter: A Novel

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A triumph of the imagination, rich in incident and beautiful in its detail, Cloudsplitter brings to life one of history's legendary figures--John Brown, whose passion to abolish slavery lit the fires of the American Civil War in a conflagration that changed civilization.

Winner of the 1999 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
March 1998

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.

People Magazine
Boston Globe
Russell Banks is a writer of extraordinary power.
USA Today
Russell Banks' remarkable Cloudsplitter brings Brown back to life, not to teach history, but as the narrator of a morally questioning novel about fathers and sons and fanaticism and how madness is measured when the sane have fled....morally questioning...
Time Magazine
Cloudsplitter is surely his best novel.
Playboy Magazine
Powerfully told....A long meditation on America's shameful enslavement of four million people....It is also a captivating portrait of a 19th-century family.
NY Times Book Review
Of the many writers working in the tradition today, one of the best is Russell and soulful.
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. Yet both deal with single-mindedness, rebellion, and codes except that Brown's versions of these are more honorable (he would have agreed with Bob 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. -- Robert E. Brown, Onondaga County Public Library, Oswego, New York
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. Yet both deal with single-mindedness, rebellion, and codes except that Brown's versions of these are more honorable (he would have agreed with Bob 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. -- Robert E. Brown, Onondaga County Public Library, Oswego, New York
Walter Kirn
Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter, a novel of near-biblical proportions about the abolitionist freedom fighter John Brown, is shaped like an explosive with an exceedingly long and winding fuse....The novel's spark is slow to ignite and travels a twisting path before it fully combusts....Banks handles his epic material cleanly, staying close to the ground of his story and moving forward one step at at time ....Banks' language, too, has amplitude. Rich and soulful, it avoids anachronism, issuing forth with a sturdy, modern momentum. Its biblical roots lie well below the surface. Here and there the writing grows slow and solemn, but the book has an underlying tidal flow that rolls the story inevitably forward. -- The New York Times
Alfred Kazin
The book brilliantly comes alive....Russell Banks is a talented and agile novelist who moves easily from one American subject to another. -- The New York Review of Books
Chicago Tribune
A huge and thunderously good book.
People Magazine
The New York Times
Highly entertaining...deeply affecting.
Houston Post
Only a few contemporary writers have the kind of vision one has come to expect from Russell Banks; one thinks of Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and perhaps William Kennedy and E. L. Doctorow.
The Boston Globe
Russell Banks is a writer of extraordinary power.
Baltimore Sun
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062123183
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/27/2011
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 227,311
  • File size: 982 KB

Meet the Author

Russell Banks

Russell Banks is one of America's most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      March 28, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newton, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Upon 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 both—both a man and a member of the family of John Brown—then 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 truth—so 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 revelations—even the documents that you requested and which I will soon sort out and provide for you—into 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 Negro—oh, 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 territory—yes, 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 cross—I 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 everything—now 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 silence—made 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 fire—these, 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.

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, March 10th, the Live Events Auditorium welcomed critically acclaimed author Russell Banks, who discussed his new book, CLOUDSPLITTER.

Moderator: Welcome, Russell Banks. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. Before we get started, do you have any opening comments for the audience?

Russell Banks: No, I am just delighted to be here and eager to hear questions and comments on the book. One spends six years writing a book in solitude, and this gives me a chance to come out of my cave like a blinking bear and hear back from readers about something that they read. I suppose it is a way to find out whether I am alone in the world.

Bill from New York, NY: What was your inspiration in writing a historical novel on the abolitionist John Brown? What drew you to this particular story in history?

Russell Banks: I was drawn first to the image of John Brown, the iconic figure of Brown. In the 1960s at college at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was politically active in the civil rights movement, and Brown's face was often seen on the walls of dormitory rooms and SNCC offices. Also he was connected via my literary studies to the writers who at that time, and even today, mean the most to me, such as Emerson and Thoreau and the other New England Transcendantalists. Then the '60s faded, and in some ways Brown faded also from my mind, until 1987, when my wife and I bought a summer house, which later became our year-round house in the Adironacks of New York, and I discovered shortly after that John Brown was buried down the road from my house. Buried alongside him were 11 of the men who were either killed at Harpers Ferry or executed afterward for their aid to his cause. There was a farm next to the gravesite where Brown lived with his family for many years in the 1840s and 1850s. So he became a ghostly but very real presence in my daily life. By this time, he had become an icon for the extreme right, the antiabortion and militia groups and other radical right-wing figures in American politics. This signified to me that he was someone who could reveal important and usual insights into the American psyche. As for deciding to write a historical novel for the first time, this decision was prompted by my belief that it is easier to see clearer into one's own time from a point just outside it. In the past, I have written from points just outside my culture geographically, and now it seemed the time to view it form a point outside in the temporal way.

Pam from Indianapolis, IN: Do you read a lot of historical fiction? What type of research did you do for this book? Are you a fan of Pynchon's or, say, T. C. Boyle's historical fiction?

Russell Banks: I do not read a lot of fiction that is described as historical fiction, but in my mind almost everything is historical, even science fiction, which is historical fiction set in the future. The only thing that is not historical, I suppose, would have to be set in the immediate present. As soon as one reads it, it is in the past. As Faulkner said, "The past is not even past yet." As for research, I did a great deal of it. I spent one and a half years doing nothing but research before I began to write the narrative and continued to research on a "need to know" basis. E. L. Doctorow, when asked how much research he did on his books, said, "Just enough." That's the trick for a fiction writer, to know when enough is enough. To know when you are no longer researching as a fiction writer, a storyteller, but rather as a historian or biographer. A fiction writer has to stop research at the point where he becomes a biographer or historian.

Tami from Ann Arbor, MI: After working on this novel for the past several years, do you think John Brown was a madman or a martyr?

Russell Banks: Good question, because you did not say "madman or sane man." Most white Americans regard him as a madman because he was a martyr in the interest of black slaves. Most African Americans today regard him as a hero for the same reason. This suggests that not only are there two conflicting views of John Brown, madman versus hero, but two views of American history. Two versions of American history. My own personal view of Brown's mental state was that he was not psychotic in any clinically defined way. That is, he was not paranoid schizophrenic or delusional, though he may have been manic-depressive to some degree. But when we ask the question, Was he mad, we are asking whether or not his actions were comprehensible to us. Would we be capable of doing the same thing without being mad? It's strange and sad that our answer as Americans so often depends on the color of our skin.

San D from New Jersey: In your work you seem to be searching for the perfect "narrator," in terms of capturing realism. Since reality encompasses many voices simultaneously, is it possible to encompass that "reality"?

Russell Banks: For me the most reliable way to capture the elusiveness of reality is paradoxically through an unreliable narrator. Thus, I have relied upon unreliable narrators in most of my books, most particularly the four most recent books, AFFLICTION, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, RULE OF THE BONE, and now CLOUDSPLITTER.

Gary Taylor from York, PA: Hi, Mr. Banks. Thanks for spending time with us. When you begin working on a new novel, what is the process you follow and why? Is it different for each work? Do you create an outline, use index cards, write a treatment, or just dive right in with Chapter 1?

Russell Banks: It really varies from book to book, although there seems to be some general procedures that I follow. I do work with outlines, two outlines in fact, one general and somewhat vague and easily changed that describes the arc of the entire book. The other, much shorter, more exact, and less flexible, describes the next 30 or 40 pages, which is to say the next few scenes. I keep and make notes and even archives for my characters and use maps and diagrams to keep track of their whereabouts. I also travel to and spend time in every place that I write about, so that I can sniff the air and feel the soil, and watch the light of the place I am describing. Not in the interest of realism per se, but so that I myself can visualize what I am describing.

Anonymous from Cyberspace: Do you read reviews of your books, and if so, what effect do they have on you?

Russell Banks: I read most reviews out of curiosity and desire to know how the book has been received, naturally. A bad review can ruin several days work, so I try to avoid reading them -- not always successfully. A good review can likewise ruin several days work by making me think better of myself than I should, but like anyone I am weak and like praise. The fact is I have rarely learned anything useful about my writing from either good or bad reviews. Generally, reviewers work under a kind of pressure that readers, one's ideal readers, don't. And therefore, they tend to be superficial in their understanding and appreciation or even lack of appreciation of the book. I am much more concerned about how the book is read by readers than reviewers. Publishers, on the other hand, sometimes seem to care too much about the responses of reviewers and too little about the responses of readers.

Gordon Inkeles from Bayside, CA: Must one conquer fear in order to write?

Russell Banks: If one conquers the fear one no longer needs to write.

Marty from Westchester, NY: Why did you choose to tell Brown's tale through his son Owen Brown?

Russell Banks: It was important to me to humanize Brown, to understand him as a man with a family and a need to earn a living who got up in the morning and went to bed at night like the rest of us. To approach a mythic figure directly would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to see him as a human being. It occurred to me that I could see him best in his human dimensions from a family member, and his third son, Owen, was the perfect witness. He was his father's lieutenant; he was present at every important pubic event in his father's life; he was at Harpers Ferry and was the only son to escape; he lived his life out afterward as a hermit, gave no interviews, wrote no memoirs, and thus was the man who lived to tell the tale and never told it.

San D from New Jersey: I like the pacing of CLOUDSPLITTER, and think by and large that it is dependent on Owen's use of language. How are you able to capture and replicate "language" in such a way that it is transposed in the reader's head?

Russell Banks: I wanted Owen to speak with a voice that we would listen to closely. I heard that voice in the letters and journals and diaries of mid-19th-century working-class American as I am sure you have in, for example, Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. Americans who had perhaps six years of formal education but who knew their Bible and probably Shakespeare and Ben Franklin and half a dozen other writings. Mid-19th-century American vernacular English is to me the most sublime form of English. I am not talking about the literary English of that period but the spoken and written English that was reserved for private communication. That was the voice I was reaching for with Owen's voice. It is a voice that makes you listen seriously. I read it in the private documents of the time, and I have heard it spoken by elderly workingmen from my town in upstate New York, who went to work in the woods as boys early in the century and learned to tell stories from older men who were boys in the mid-19th century, It was the voice of such men that I kept in my ears when I was setting down Owen's voice.

Fred from Fredericksburg, VA: What made you call this book CLOUDSPLITTER? It is such a fantastic and striking title. I was wondering if there were any other possible titles that you were tossing around, and what made you choose this one? Thanks.

Russell Banks: No, it was the title that I had from the beginning. It is the translation of the Iroquois name for the mountain that faces John Brown's farm in North Elba, New York. The Iroquois word is Tahawas. It seemed an appropriate word for John Brown himself and surely for the raid on Harpers Ferry, but it also is the name of the place that John Brown most loved looking on. Ironically perhaps, Cloudsplitter or Tahawas is now called Mt. Marcy -- named after an obscure and barely competent governor of New York in the 1890s.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Mr. Banks. It has truly been a pleasure. We wish you the best of luck with CLOUDSPLITTER, and we of course look forward to having you join us again with your next book! Any closing comments for the audience?

Russell Banks: No, but just to thank the audience for their excellent questions. Thank you!

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Owen Brown, an old man wracked with guilt and living alone in the California hills, answers a query from an historian who is writing about the life and times of Owen's famous abolitionist father, John Brown. In an effort to release the demons of his past so that he can die in peace, Owen casts back his memory to his youth, and the days of the Kansas Wars which led up to the raid on Harper's Ferry. As he begins describing his childhood in Ohio, in Western Pennsylvania, and in the mountain village of North Elba, NY, Owen reveals himself to be a deeply conflicted youth, one whose personality is totally overshadowed by the dominating presence of his father. A tanner of hides and an unsuccessful wholesaler of wool, John Brown is torn between his yearnings for material success and his deeply passionate desire to rid the United States of the scourge of slavery. Having taken an oath to God to dedicate his life and the lives of his children to ending slavery, he finds himself constantly thwarted by his ever-increasing debts due to a series of disastrous business ventures. As he drags his family from farmstead to farmstead in evasion of the debt collectors, he continues his vital work on the Underground Railroad, escorting escaped slaves into Canada. As his work brings him into contact with great abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other figures from that era, Brown finds his commitment to action over rhetoric growing ever more fervent. But it is his son Owen--slowly maturing from a quiet, nervous young man into a bloodthirsty warrior--who finally urges his father toward the path of violence. This is the story of a rural family's wrenchingtransformation from anti-slavery agitators into political terrorists, and finally, tragically into martyrs.


Praise For Cloudsplitter

"Nobody who reads the first chapters of Cloudsplitter can doubt that Banks has found his big subject. It is surely his best novel, a furious, sprawling drama that commands attention like thunder heard from just over the horizon." --Time

". . .a masterwork not only of white American fiction but of another divided whole, American literature." --The New Yorker

"Massive, startlingly vivid, morally and intellectually challenging. . . . --People

"Extraordinary. . . .Far surpassing Toni Morrison's works on this subject, it is the most important novel about race published in America since William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." --Baltimore Sun

 Topics for Discussion
1. How reliable a narrator is Owen Brown? What parts of his narrative do you find circumspect?

2. Owen states that he does not believe in God, that for him, his father was his God. Is this an apt analogy? If so, how would you characterize his faith in his God?

3. With regard to the Kansas Wars, Owen writes, "It was no longer clear to me: were we doing this for them, the Negroes; or were we simply using them as an excuse to commit vile crimes against one another? Was our true nature that of the man who sacrifices himself and others for his principles; or was it that of the criminal?" What do you think, and why?

4. Owen claims, in his account of his life, to settle once and for all the question of his father's sanity. Does he do so? Do you think his father is sane or insane? Is Owen sane? What sort of criteria would you use to differentiate moral conviction from insanity?

5. Owen writes of his father and the mountain, Tawanus: "I have come over the years to associate the two, as if each, mountain and man, were a portrait of the other and the two, reduced to their simplest outlines, were a single, runic inscription which I must, before I die, decipher, or I will not know the meaning of my own existence or its worth." What might he mean by this? Why is the novel entitled Cloudsplitter?

6. In his Author's Note, Russell Banks makes it clear that Cloudsplitter is a work of fiction, and not a version or interpretation of history. Nevertheless, the novel contains much historical information. What is the relationship between fiction and historical fact in Cloudsplitter? Is "historical fiction" a deceptive distortion of history, or does it add to our understanding of history? Of the present?

About the Author:
Russell Banks was born and raised in New Hampshire. At age 27, he graduated from the University of North Carolina and began teaching Freshman Composition. His first novel, Searching for Survivors, was published at age 35 by Fiction Collective. After thirteen works of fiction, including such acclaimed novels as Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, Affliction, and The Sweet Hereafter (the latter two of which have been made into films), Banks has now produced one of the most important bodies of work in contemporary literature: Cloudsplitter. Ten years ago, he and his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, bought a second home in Keene, NY, not far from John Brown's grave. This proximity to a landscape that was so much a part of John Brown's story partially led Banks to begin thinking about his legendary neighbor, and he realized Brown's story had all the themes "[he'd] been concerned with, some would say obsessed with, for 20 years--the relationships between parents and children, particularly fathers and sons, and the interconnections between politics and religion and race."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2006

    Amazing Historical Fiction!

    Amazing in its ability to draw the reader into a time and place so greatly removed from current events, yet is it. Especially now when we are nearing another crossroads in which individual liberty and freedom are being challenged in proper and improper ways. It makes for a great historical read of blissfully fictionalzed non-fiction, or taken much deeper challenges the reader to consider where they might find themselves if they choose to take a passionate stand for something they held in such high regard. Would they be able to hold their speech/actions in proper context or would their power (physcial/spiritual) corrupt their ability to discern needed perspective? Either way you choose to read it -- you will be spellbound.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2001

    John Brown: Not as Mad as you think

    Who doesn't think of John Brown as a raving lunatic? Those drawings showing his flowing white beard and piercing eyes do nothing for his reputation. This book does. It puts a human face on Mr. Brown, and his family who chose to follow his dream of ending slavery. The book is long, but I found very few parts that were superfluous or boring, I read it in a very short time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2001

    Admiration or Fear?

    Fascinating story about a man (John Brown) and his followers. The book is rich in historical perspective and clearly describes the prevailing attitudes of the time preceeding the Civil War regarding the issue of slavery. The story left me questioning whether Brown should be admired for his principled stance against slavery or, if he was a fanatical power monger to be feared by all who opposed him.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2000

    Imaging History

    Russell Banks has not turned out such a good read since Continental Drift. In Cloudsplitter, we view the man and abolitionist John Brown through the eyes of his son and realistically view life in the decades before the Civil War. He shows the forces that were ripping the country asunder and would result in the bloodbath of 1860 through 1865. It is a riveting book that I have not been able to put down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    History Brought to Life

    I really wanted to love this book, but it is a snoozefest.

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  • Posted August 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    This is one of those books that I did not think I would enjoy, but it was recommended to me so I gave it a try. And I am unbelievably glad I did! It is absolutely amazing. Though sometimes tough to read because of the "old ways" of speaking, it has proven to be well worth it and as I went on, much easier to follow. I cannot seem to put it down.

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    Posted July 10, 2009

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    Posted January 29, 2009

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