Novelist peers into John Brown's psyche Book review: Russell Banks' passion about the myths and truths of abolitionist John Brown's legend is what fuels his new novel, 'Cloudsplitter.'

March 05, 1998|By Gail Waldwell | Gail Waldwell,BOSTON GLOBE

Russell Banks demonstrates his passionate grasp of the braided history of race and class in America in his newest novel, "Cloudsplitter" (HarperFlamingo, 758 pp., $27.50), a retelling of the saga of the controversial pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown.

Brown and his small army of sons and believers tried to start a slave insurrection in the 1850s and died, depending upon your perspective, martyrs or fools or murderers.

It is neither a pretty story nor a short one, and "Cloudsplitter" isn't, either; the novel marches through the two decades preceding Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, in what was then Virginia, in October 1859, which resulted in his execution for treason six weeks later.

'Was my father mad?'

The narrator of the story is Owen Brown, the third son and chief lieutenant to "Old Osawatomie," as Brown became known after his raids in the free state of Kansas. When the novel opens it is 1899; Owen is an old shepherd in the isolated mountains of California, to where he escaped in 1859 after the deaths of his brothers and father.

Descending into old age and grief and possibly delusions, he is writing his last "confession" to the assistant of Professor Oswald Garrison Villard, who (in real life) would go on to complete the first massive study of John Brown. "Was my father mad?" Owen asks at the beginning of his retrospective. "For if he was sane, then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true."

Therein lies the vast map where Banks presumes to travel, though the exploration of the question - John Brown's sanity - is often lost to the realms of historical events, religious inquiry and family dynamics. (Banks never mentions, for instance, the documented propensity to mental illness in Brown's family, particularly his mother's side.)

"Cloudsplitter" offers instead a fictionalized background of John Brown and his clan: his failed efforts as a speculator and businessman; his abolitionist zeal, which grew over the years to a certainty that the Lord was speaking through him; his distorted faith, which commanded his offspring - he fathered 20 children with two wives - to obey and mirror him through piety, prayer and, eventually, bloodshed. His was not an easy family to survive, in any sense of the word.

Home in North Elba, N.Y.

"Cloudsplitter" takes its title from the name the Iroquois gave the mountain overlooking North Elba, N.Y., where Brown made his home, and the novel delivers a vision of the geography of the land : an antebellum America defined by rivers and mountain gorges and railroads headed west.

The world depicted here is not only one of daily Scripture and anti-slavery passion turned into armed rebellion but squirrel stew, cholera, and ague, the yearly business of difficult childbirth and dying children. When Owen, then 9, fell from the roof during a childhood prank, his father tried to set his broken arm, though it never healed properly and made him disabled for life. That was the kind of consequence from impulse the Browns would learn all too well.

Banks' passion about the myths and truths of John Brown's legend is what fuels this novel.

Lost in his memories and lifelong guilt since he helped his father stage their raids, Owen is a garrulous, sometimes overbearing narrator who tends to describe the same emotional legacy in four different ways: We are given everything from household inventories to endless history and Scripture lessons here, without much regard to the overall scheme of the novel.

Such information lends itself to biography or social history. The result of this profligacy is that the most moving and important parts of the novel - Owen's relationship with his father, their work on the Underground Railroad, the honorable idealism of abolitionism changed, at Brown's end, into scattershot violence - are obscured by the weight of indiscriminate detail.

For all its attention to one of the pivotal figures in American history, what "Cloudsplitter" really seeks to capture is the shadowy bond between an obsessed father and his desperate, motherless son - the way heartbreak and misspent rage can manifest as a bloody day in history, with infinite legacies too often shaped by one man's paths and choices.

Using his Bible as a military manual, John Brown believed he was doing God's work, but he also took counsel from Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, eventually, the alienated son he chose to advise him.

Educated within the liberal, anti-slavery realm of transcendentalist thought, fortified daily by prayer and self-abnegation, Owen Brown was also driven by anger and loneliness and what turned out to be the dark beckoning of violence for its own sake.

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