Friday, August 04, 2017

Conditional (:)(:)(:)(:)(:) for Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry
No one in their right mind would review a book before they've finished reading it, so I'm giving it a conditional five out of a possible five snouts up for Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, page 436 out of 758.    I've had this book on my shelf for a couple of years, working my way around to the right mood for reading a fictionalized treatment of the life of abolitionist John Brown through the eyes of a surviving son.

But then I realized that I was headed to my mother's family reunion near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  Our Engle family settled near there throughout the 19th century including one of my direct ancestors who inauspiciously chose to fight for the confederacy even after his part of Virginia refused to secede from the union, sigh.  So this then, was the perfect time to read Cloudsplitter to better imagine those volatile times leading up to the civil war.

I even went one better and assigned Cloudsplitter as the Engle Etchison family reunion book (who does that?) to make sure that I read it.  I was certain that no one else would read the book.  And, now that I'm at the reunion, I've been proven right.  I, however, am absolutely riveted by the perspective of his middle son Owen brought up by this zealous, deeply Christian man who became convinced that it would take an organized insurrection to end the institution of slavery.   The imaginings in the book of his hateful rants towards weak, nonviolent white and black abolitionists, and his sense that he is somehow a better, more dedicated "Negro" than many actual African-Americans, holds me spell bound.  This book, a national bestseller and Editor's Choice of the New York Times Book Review in 1998, somehow holds up even better in today's climate where current administration policies are strangely reminiscent  of such outrages as the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850.

Combine this reading as I have with a first trip to the African-American Museum on the National Mall, a viewing of An Octoroon at the Woolly Mammoth Theater and a reunion of my white West Virginia relatives and you've got yourself a real American party.

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