Snotchocheez's Reviews > Cloudsplitter

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
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Oct 05, 2010

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Read from October 05 to 18, 2010

"Cloudsplitter", a fictional novel about the the abolitionist John Brown, is as painful to review as it is (at times) to read. Clearly this 750+ page behemoth is a labor of love for author Russell Banks: as exhaustive and as detailed as the events in John Brown's life are depicted, you can't help but feel that Banks lived, sleeped, breathed...well, completely inhabited John Brown and his family (particularly, the narrator, his third son Owen Brown). The book, however, is simultaneously beautiful AND boring, thought-provoking AND mind-numbing, true-to-life AND fanciful, brilliant AND mundane.

The problem might lie in the manner Banks chooses to portray this story: through a vast meandering recollection of son Owen Brown, who, nearly 40 years after the anti-slavery uprising movement ended, is approached by an historian to provide an account of John Brown's life. The book starts out quite promisingly, with Owen Brown providing a reflective, almost meditative account on the foment of Brown's abolitionist movement. Discussing the psychological and religious impetuses and imperatives that led John Brown down his road of insurrection (and martyrdom) in the name of doing away with the scourge of slavery seemed a much more interesting read than, say, merely reading a historical account of Brown's life. The problem lies in Banks inhabiting Owen Brown's character so completely that he often times comes off as a terribly unreliable narrator: he repeats himself three or more times in discussing certain sequences, and trails off or omits other key sequences entirely by saying things like "enough about that has been made public record in the history I won't go into it"...then preceding comments like that with minutiae that beg for a equally detailed resolution. The formative years of John Brown's anti-slave sentiment, many of which spent in upstate New York within view of Tahawus Mountain (whence the "Cloudsplitter" title originates) in the Adirondacks, are carefully detailed...while key uprisings like the ones in the Kansas territory in the 1850s are seemingly glossed over...and the raid on Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia in 1859, often pointed to as a pivotal event leading toward the American Civil War, barely even touched upon.

For the reader, Banks' inconsistent narrative provides a frustrating reading experience: a juxtaposition between getting a clear detailed account of John Brown's life and his causes, alongside an unfleshed-out overview on the important events in the abolitionist movement gives the reader pause as to why it took 750 pages to tell this story. Kudos to Mr. Banks for providing fiction that defies pigeon-holing: Not one of the five books I've read by him thus far resembles any of the others. The only common theme among them is the exploration of the relationships between strong (perhaps overbearing) fathers (or absent a father, a father figure) and their offspring. "Cloudsplitter" is an interesting departure for Banks. Although, while it seems like he was shooting for the moon with this epic saga, he should probably have aimed a little closer to home.

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Mona I think he skipped over Harper's Ferry and the Kansas uprisings because so much has already been written about them.

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