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Banks, Russell. Cloudsplitter. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998.

Owen Brown, last surviving son of John Brown, tells his story long after the Civil War. Owen tells of his father's steely but sometimes inscrutable purposes, and of his own fateful bond with his father. Owen's tortuous relationship with the Browns' African-American friend Lyman Epps sets the stage for Owen's conflicted behavior in the years of abolitionist activity in northern New York State, and later in the violence of Kansas and Harper's Ferry.

Banks warns that the novel is highly fictionalized, and it indeed takes liberties with the documentary record, fleshing out minor figures like Epps with deep and fraught backstories, and making Owen (in his own imaginary words) much more central to the story than history would (and incidentally lengthening Owen's lifespan by at least a decade). Cloudsplitter is a vast novel that moves slowly at times and at others gathers a fierce energy; it replicates the rhythms of John Brown's life. It well repays the time needed to finish it, and is part of Banks's larger project, in his fiction, of the exploration of American violence and memory of violence (as in The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction).


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