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Cloudsplitter: A Novel

Cloudsplitter: A Novel

4.3 10
by Russell Banks

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A triumph of the imagination and a masterpiece of modern storytelling, Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America's most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly


A triumph of the imagination and a masterpiece of modern storytelling, Cloudsplitter is narrated by the enigmatic Owen Brown, last surviving son of America's most famous and still controversial political terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Deeply researched, brilliantly plotted, and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters both historical and wholly invented, Cloudsplitter is dazzling in its re-creation of the political and social landscape of our history during the years before the Civil War, when slavery was tearing the country apart. But within this broader scope, Russell Banks has given us a riveting, suspenseful, heartbreaking narrative filled with intimate scenes of domestic life, of violence and action in battle, of romance and familial life and death that make the reader feel in astonishing ways what it is like to be alive in that time.

Editorial Reviews

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 Banks....rich 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
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.
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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HarperCollins Publishers
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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.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Ondaatje
Russell Banks' work presents without falsehood and with a tough affection the uncompromising moral voice of our time. You find the craziness of false dreams, the political inequalities, and somehow the sliver of redemption. I trust his portrait of America more than any other--the burden of it, the need for it, the hell of it. -- Author of The English Patient

Meet the Author

Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, 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.


Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 28, 1940
Place of Birth:
Newton, Massachusetts

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Cloudsplitter 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
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Farm-Girl-12 More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book, but it is a snoozefest.
rdsx878 More than 1 year ago
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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