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    Contributors | September 15, 2015

    Mary Karr: IMG Memoir Tutorials with Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, and Gary Shteyngart

    Editor's note: It's been 20 years since the groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club sent Mary Karr into the literary spotlight with its phenomenal... Continue »
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Cloudsplitter Cover

ISBN13: 9780060930868
ISBN10: 0060930861
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

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?

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lukas, February 28, 2015 (view all comments by lukas)

"So we were going off to Kansas to be good at killing. Our specialty would be killing men who wished to own other men."
Russell Banks, known for his harshly realistic novels like "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter," delves into American history, which in his hands is something complicated, dark, and bloody. This ambitious, sprawling (over 700 pages), and intense book is the story of John Brown and his war on slavery. Told by his conflicted and uneasy son Owen, who survived Harper's Ferry, Banks brilliantly recreates the mood and feel of the mid-19 century and the divisive force of slavery. John Brown, a religious zealot who felt called by God to start a war on slave owners, is an easy figure to respect, but a much harder one to like. Banks doesn't shy from his difficulty, but he does make him, if not exactly sympathetic, a compelling character who truly believed slavery was a great evil. Historical figures like Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Harriet Tubman make cameos. An impressive achievement that should have won the Pulitzer in 1999, rather than Cunningham's rather mediocre "The Hours." Also see James McBride's John Brown book "The Good Lord Bird" and Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner."
"Freedom! The bloody work of the Lord!"

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Julie Sloane, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Julie Sloane)
An epic story of John Brown, America's most famous abolitionist, as told by his semi-fictional son, Owen. I was awed by the breadth and depth of Russell Banks' vision, which sets the most important struggle of the United States' first 100 years within the relationship of a father and son. Banks has elsewhere written that a story might exist in three equally true but distinct versions: the mythic, the social, and the psychological. "Cloudsplitter" braids all three together. Reading it, I was alternately shattered and uplifted, and finally came away feeling that although this was a work of fiction, I understood this country's struggle to survive on a more profound level than I had ever achieved through a study of history.
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Product Details

A Novel
Banks, Russell
by Russell Banks
Banks, Russell
Patten, Arturo
Harper Perennial
New York, NY :
Historical - General
West virginia
Antislavery movements
Harpers Ferry (W. Va.) History John Brown's Raid, 1859 Fiction.
Harpers Ferry
General Fiction
Historical fiction
Harpers Ferry (W. Va.) History.
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
11 x 8.5 in 13.54 oz

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Related Subjects

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Cloudsplitter Used Trade Paper
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$1.50 In Stock
Product details 768 pages Perennial - English 9780060930868 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , 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, brilliantlyplotted, 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.
"Synopsis" by , This brilliant recounting of the events surrounding John Brown's legendary raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry is a masterpiece of modern American storytelling.

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