Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Banks' story of abolitionist John Brown is at once a meditation on race, a domestic drama, and a major novel with powerful resonances on the dangerous fanaticisms of our time. Prompted by an historian's request, Brown's reclusive son Owen relives and reimagines his nomadic family life and his father's evolution from idealist to violent radical. The intensity of Brown's passion and prophecy scar many, motivate others, and illustrates how righteousness can turn into terrorism and martyrdom. Beautifully written, it is a moving, wise, and timely work." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
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.
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.
About the Author
Russell Banks was raised in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. The eldest of four children, he grew up in a working-class environment, which has played a major role in his writing.
Mr. Banks (who was the first in his family to go to college) attended Colgate University for less than a semester, and later graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before he could support himself as a writer, he tried his hand at plumbing, and as a shoe salesman and window trimmer. More recently, he has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, University of New Hampshire, New England College, New York University and Princeton University.
A prolific writer of fiction, his titles include Searching for Survivors, Family Life, Hamilton Stark, The New World, The Book of Jamaica, Trailerpark, The Relation of My Imprisonment, Continental Drift, Success Stories, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, and The Angel On The Roof, a collection of short stories. He has also contributed poems, stories and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harpers,and many other publications.
His works have been widely translated and published in Europe and Asia. Two of his novels have been adapted for feature-length films, The Sweet Hereafter(directed by Atom Goyan, winner of the Grand Prix and International Critics Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival) and Affliction(directed by Paul Schrader, starring Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Sissy Spacek, and James Coburn). He is the screenwriter of a film adaptation of Continental Drift.
Mr. Banks has won numerous awards and prizes for his work, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, Ingram Merrill Award, The St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, The John Dos Passos Award, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Continental Driftand Cloudsplitterwere finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and 1998 respectively. Afflictionwas short listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize.
He has lived in a variety of places, from New England to Jamaica, which have contributed to the richness of his writing. He is currently living in upstate New York.
Russell Banks is married to the poet Chase Twichell, and is the father of four grown daughters.
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?