American literary giant William Faulkner wrote his celebrated short story “Barn Burning” from the point of view of a boy. The tale’s brilliance emerged not so much in the details of the man who dealt his enemies horrid strokes of violence, but in the way Faulkner presented the villain through the eyes of his young son. In Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks’s epic about the life of John Brown—a white man who became the most violent and uncompromising anti-slavery advocate in U.S. history—the novelist has also chosen to tell the story from the vantage point of the main character’s son,
By Russell Banks
(Knopf Canada, 758pages, $34.95)
Owen. That strategy brings the reader within intimate reach of John Brown—close enough to underline, as only a family member can do, the gap between a man’s public victories and private failures.
The opening pages find Owen an old and dying man, living alone in 1900 in a barren cabin in California. A biographer has approached him, seeking information about his father. What emerges from Owen’s firstperson account is a sad memoir of how he was unable to create a life for himself under the shadow of a domineering, charismatic father. In his early years, Owen shares neither John Brown’s religious zeal nor his dedication to the overthrow of slavery. He wants a simple, ordinary existence. He wants a woman to love. “I was ... precariously balanced between opposing commitments which were set to create the shape of the rest of my life,” Owen recalls, “and I knew that not to choose between them would lead me inescapably to a resolution that expressed, not my will, but Father’s.”
And what a will John Brown had. As Banks ably demonstrates, Brown went immeasurably further than simply giving up his own life to fight against American slavery. He raised
Lawrence Hill’s most recent novel is Any Known Blood, in which John Brown appeared as a fictional character.
Brown. He whips Owen for a minor domestic transgression, then places the whip in his son’s hands and demands that the whipping be reciprocated. He believes that God speaks directly to him. At one point, moments after Brown and his sons carry out a brutal massacre of pro-slavery advocates in Kansas, Brown attempts to console a weeping son named Fred. “God will forgive thee, son. I have prayed and listened with all my mind and heart to the Lord, and I know that we have done His will in this business.” Banks depicts Brown as so unacquainted with compromise that he shuns everyoneeven abolitionists—who rejects his view that only violence can overthrow slavery. At one point, near the end of an exhausting winter trek to take over a farming operation in New York state, Brown and his wife and children are sheltered by a prejudiced farmer named Caleb Partridge. To show the abolitionist’s calculating nature, Banks has Brown stay up half the night, querying his host about his views on race and slavery. The next day, as he and his family leave the man who helped them, Brown concludes: “Somewhere along the line, I fear well have to cut him down.”
Brown’s devotion to his cause culminated in his 1859 attack— with Owen, two other sons and 18 more men (two of them Canadians)—on a U.S. weapons arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. The goal was to steal rifles, provoke slaves into running off their plantations and enlist black and white men in guerrilla warfare against plantation owners. Brown took control of the Harpers Ferry arsenal for a day or so. But once in town, he squandered the element of surprise and dug in to shoot it out with militiamen and U.S. troops. This final section of the novel unfolds too quickly, and its dramatic power is weakened because Owen is absent from the heart of the action, observing it all from the safety of a distant treetop.
In the end, most of the Harpers Ferry raiders—including sons Watson and Oliver—died either in the attack or, like John Brown himself, were hanged after trial. As a military strategist, Brown may have been gravely inept, but he did drive the United States one big step closer towards civil war and the abolition of slavery.
Cloudsplitter, a profoundly moving novel despite the disappointing final scene, illustrates that people of great accomplishments are not necessarily great people. Banks deftly dramatizes John Brown’s commitment to unshackling African-Americans, and at the same time laments that, in the process, he destroyed the lives of those around him.
thousands of dollars for abolition, but condemned his two wives and 20 children to decades of poverty. He drew into battle sons and sons-in-law, five of whom died as a result. He was responsible for the deaths of a dozen or more other followers and of numerous enemies—some of whom were dragged halfnaked from their homes and hacked to death.
In a nation that tends to elevate its heroes to mythic status, Brown remains one of America’s most controversial figures. He has been depicted both as a courageous hero and a bumbling madman. Banks shows Brown to be a useless businessman and a negligent husband and father, but far from insane. His only passion is to end slavery, and he lives and dies pursuing that passion.
In direct, transparent prose, Banks creates a complex psychological portrait of
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