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Cloudsplitter Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Updated on December 29, 2019
Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere brags about being a Civil War buff, but knew shamefully little about John Brown before reading this book.

...but still I knew or cared little about the subject, thinking only that the painting Tragic Prelude (above)...is a powerful work of terrible beauty.
...but still I knew or cared little about the subject, thinking only that the painting Tragic Prelude (above)...is a powerful work of terrible beauty. | Source

John Brown's Body

When I was in the fifth grade, to our great mirth my friends and I used to sing a little schoolyard ditty, when we thought the teacher wasn't listening. It went something like this:

Glory Glory Hallelujah

Teacher hit me with a ruler

Met her at the door

With a loaded 44

And she ain't our teacher no more

Oh how the times have changed. Nowadays they are handcuffing kindergarteners for even whispering about guns in school, but back then we were just kids being kids, fooling around, powerless to enforce our self-determination, letting out our frustration in song.

You might recognize the Glory Glory Hallelujah part as coming from a popular 1860s folk song called John Brown's Body, attributed to Greenleaf, Marsh, Hall and others. The tune originated as a Civil War marching air that celebrated abolitionist John Brown's legacy, honoring how he ignited the spark that flamed into the conflict to free the slaves. The chorus became a rallying cry as stirring as Remember The Alamo is to Texans.

Through the years the powerful melody lived on, often with the John Brown lines suppressed, as post-Reconstruction historians gave unfavorable reviews to the fire-breathing zealot who gave his life at Harper's Ferry. Finally, 115 years after Union soldiers tramping through the mud first sang it, the anthem had morphed into the bawdy ballad me and my schoolyard buddies horsed around with, the one whose opening stanzas -

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school

We have tortured every teacher, we have broken every rule

- pretty much summarized our opinion of the American educational experience. John Brown had become our liberator too, without us knowing it.

When I reached my 20s, John Brown's body was exhumed from the grave to haunt me again, this time on the cover of the debut, eponymous LP of the rock group Kansas, a band I was very fond of. of. The name of John Brown was familiar background noise to me by that point, but still I knew or cared little about the subject, thinking only that Tragic Prelude (above), the album's cover art, is a powerful work of terrible beauty. The mural's centerpiece is John Brown, and as of now I add seeing it up close in the Kansas State Capitol to my already crowded bucket list.

I finally got to the point in life where I learned a little about history and actually cared. By then I had read dozens of books on the stadium-shaking Civil War main event, but knew next to nothing about its opening act - John Brown and his backup band, Bleeding Kansas.

Then I recently discovered Cloudsplitter, by Russel Banks, laying lonely on a Goodwill shelf. I went in there looking for a new lunch time read, not seeking anything in particular, and this one waved at me almost as soon as I walked in. I read the back and realized it was time to fill in certain gaps in my education. Throwing down three dollars, I lugged the 768 page heavyweight off to work, intending never again to take my history lessons from the rhymes of ribald grade-school carols.

Cloudsplitter is written from the first person perspective of John Brown's son, Owen Brown
Cloudsplitter is written from the first person perspective of John Brown's son, Owen Brown | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit reviewer Mel Carriere has grown much older since he first sang rebellious verses under his breath to the tune of John Brown's Body, but his taste in music has not matured much with his aging body. However, he does maintain impeccably high standards for his Lunchtime Lit reviews, which incorporate books read only on his half hour Postal lunch break.

Lunchtime Lit One Year Recap to Date * ** ***

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
Infinite Jest
1079
577,608
10/16/2017
4/3/2018
102
Wuthering Heights
340
107,945
4/4/2018
5/15/2018
21
Red Sorghum
347
136,990
5/16/2018
6/23/2018
22
Gormeghast
409
181,690
6/26/2018
8/6/2018
29
Moby Dick
643
206,050
8/18/2018
10/23/2018
45
Jude The Obscure
397
149,670
10/27/2018
12/10/2018
28
Titus Alone
224
95,120
12/11/2018
1/5/2019
18
Cloudsplitter
768
260,742
1/7/2019
3/27/2019
49

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

*Seventeen other titles, with a total estimated word count of 3,649,830 and 502 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.


Strangling The Status Quo

To be perfectly clear, Cloudsplitter is not a history book. It is historical fiction, so my history lesson here was filtered through the poetic license of its novelist. This is why being a novelist is fun, because we are allowed to gloss over the gaps in our lazy research with cute but meaningless words. Cloudsplitter is written from the first person perspective of John Brown's son, Owen Brown, and in fairness seems to be much more meticulously researched than anything I would have the attention span to carry out.

The drawback with the book is not that the author didn't do his homework, but with the pace of its storytelling. It meanders sluggishly past the first five hundred pages of buildup, then races through the good parts. It's as if the editor is hovering in the background, saying "Really Russel, 800 pages? Come on pinch it off." Cloudsplitter is very informative, but in terms of entertainment value, standing side by side with the 25 or so other titles I have read in my leisurely lunchtime shade, I would rank this somewhere among the bottom feeders.

The real value of Cloudsplitter is that it opened my eyes to the important, dare I say essential role of John Brown in ending the entrenched institution of slavery. Although the novel does not portray him this way, John Brown's archetype of wild-eyed murderous prophet may have been the only storm strong enough to uproot the status quo of legalized bondage.

The fanatical anti-slavery views of this upstate New York farmer drew him to Kansas, where pro-slavery and abolitionist forces struggled to bring the state into the Union under their respective banners. When Brown sensed the foul odor of compromise in the wind, he and his disciples carried out an utterly horrible act, one that ensured that shady back room deal making, the very thing that had kept a race in chains throughout American history, would no longer be possible.

Bible in one hand, Sharps rifle in the other, the radical abolitionist next stormed the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, intending to arm a slave insurrection.
Bible in one hand, Sharps rifle in the other, the radical abolitionist next stormed the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, intending to arm a slave insurrection. | Source

Pottawatomie Portent

On the night of May 24, 1856, John Brown and adherents of his bloody gospel massacred 5 pro-slavery men along Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. It wasn't the killing itself that rendered further compromise impossible in the embattled territory, but the manner it was carried out. John Brown's company was armed with very good rifles, but they didn't use them. Instead of dispatching their foes with quick and merciful gunshots to the head, they hacked them to death with swords. This Messiah of mayhem viewed himself as an avenging angel, an instrument of divine wrath that God actually spoke to, but this bloody act was not the hallucinatory rampage of a madman. Just as we vow today never to compromise with terrorists, John Brown knew his foes would never compromise with the perpetrators of such a heinous deed.

Bible in one hand, Sharps rifle in the other, the radical abolitionist next stormed the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, intending to arm a slave insurrection. The attack petered out in dismal failure, Brown and his co-conspirators were strung up on the gallows, but again the attempt accomplished what it intended to. To Southern slave owners, the age-old paranoia of being murdered in bed by their chattels now seemed legitimate. Dixie's old guard could not allow themselves to be governed by a Republican party chock full of abolitionists, even though the President-elect was not one. When Abraham Lincoln took office secession was well underway, and Civil War was inevitable.

If not for Bleeding Kansas and Harper's Ferry, I opine that slavery may have endured for decades more. Sympathetic Northern politicians like Buchanan and Fillmore had been pandering to Southern interests for years, continually compromising to prevent Southern states from pulling out of the Union. There is no reason to believe the parlor room, anti-slavery outrage of wealthy New Englanders would not have continued in its vociferous ineffectiveness. John Brown's audacious acts overturned that, he single-handedly forced the hand of the people sitting on the fence. Without him, who knows what the ultimate fate of our nation's peculiar institution would have been?

No, you will never find an Osama Bin Laden memorial erected in some sleepy burg in upstate New York, but you can visit John Brown's farm in North Elba, a state Historic site.
No, you will never find an Osama Bin Laden memorial erected in some sleepy burg in upstate New York, but you can visit John Brown's farm in North Elba, a state Historic site. | Source

A Little Blurb About The Author

Being reviewed on Lunchtime Lit is worse for authors than the Sports Illustrated jinx is for athletes - it can actually be the kiss of death. A frightening high percentage of Lunchtime Lit authors have either met untimely ends, or died either in poverty or obscurity.

Fortunately, Cloudsplitter author Russel Banks is alive and well, working on wife number 4 and writing heavy novels that have been nominated for, but not awarded Pullitzer Prizes. Unlike his personal life, which has involved a lot of brides, his books so far have only been bridesmaids. As is the case with Cloudsplitter, his stories deal with well-intentioned white folks trying to interact with people of color, often awkwardly.

Enough said. Banks' books are being turned into movies and he seems to be living the dream, unlike so many other Lunchtime Lit wordsmiths, flopping restlessly in the tomb as their family members squander the posthumous windfall of their work.

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood."

— John Brown's last words, penned before his hanging
...is John Brown's memory to be reviled or revered? I guess the answer depends on geography, that depicted on a physical map of the Earth, but also on the political landscape of one's soul.
...is John Brown's memory to be reviled or revered? I guess the answer depends on geography, that depicted on a physical map of the Earth, but also on the political landscape of one's soul. | Source

One Man's Terrorist...

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. That is not a popular thing to say post 9-11, so I guess I might as well be the one to say it, since I've already ruffled a feather or two in my time.

Cloudsplitter awakened this reader to the validity of such an idea through its principal character, John Brown, a man who was hailed as a hero in the North - having songs sung about him which were later perverted by naughty grade school hooligans. South of Mason-Dixon, however, Brown was absolutely reviled. I am betting you won't find his statue standing in any Dixieland courthouse square.

At Pottawatomie and again at Harper's Ferry, John Brown committed audacious atrocities deliberately designed to strike terror into the heart of his enemies, carried out with the view of escalating the slavery issue from political gum-flapping to full scale war. In this he ultimately succeeded, just as one could say the 9-11 terrorists succeeded in broadening the conflict with the west, culminating in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

No, you will never find an Osama Bin Laden memorial erected in some sleepy burg in upstate New York, but you can visit John Brown's farm in North Elba, a state Historic site. You may call that an extreme statement, comparing the two, but the analogy wouldn't be much of a reach for a rank and file pro-slavery type in the antebellum South. Continue your Cloudsplitter tour from there swinging by the remains of his tannery in Pennsylvania, an archaeological monument and museum. Closer to my home, the faithful son of the fiery-eyed provocateur, Cloudsplitter protagonist Owen Brown, has his grave carefully preserved in Altadena, California. Hence we see that mere lines in the dirt can change the perception of a man from demon to angel.

Although Cloudsplitter doesn't crack the top ten of my favorite Lunchtime Lit reads, it does renew the debate - is John Brown's memory to be reviled or revered? I guess the answer depends on geography, that depicted on a physical map of the Earth, but also upon the political and ethical landscape of one's soul.


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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Devika. John Brown is regarded as a footnote in history but I think he is much more than a footnote, for fans and foes alike. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I had read a little of John Brown and you have enlightened me further here. Informative and different to me.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. Although it wasn't the greatest novel, my knowledge of the man was significantly increased by this book too. John Brown smuggled a lot of escaped slaves up to Canada, so he plays a part in the history of your lovely land too. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I've heard of John Brown, but you've significantly increased my knowledge of the man. Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Road Monkey. British invasion in reverse. I think they call it The Battle Hymn Of The Republic too. It's a pretty popular military air, so maybe some Yankee military band popularized it over there during the war. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 

      5 months ago

      I remember singing that song in school in the UK over 60 years ago, though not the part about the 44. It wouldn't have meant anything to us. Maybe it was brought over by GI Joe?

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      We had no violent intentions Mills, we just thought school sucked. From Pamela's comment this little ditty seemed widespread, probably with geographical variations.

      Hard to say if John Brown was a positive or negative force. He certainly was a catalyst for something good, which was the ending of slavery. Would slavery have ended without violence? Eventually, but who knows how many more years black Americans would have to endure.

      Thanks for your great comments. Merry Christmas.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you for the tip Bill. I have read a few by Bruce Catton. Great writer. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      5 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I remember the John Brown song as well, though I don't remember anybody changing lyrics to sound if the singer were inspired by Dirty Harry. Unfortunately, some kids think they have the right to attempt a permanent end to a grievance. Thankfully, few people act on their violent words and thoughts.

      John Brown's actions should not be condoned, but neither should the cause against which he fought. The effects of slavery touch American society today, though I hope Brown's final written words never happen in this context again.

      Also, your Lunchtime Lit chart seems to indicate that you work six day weeks - unless, of course, you're taking some work home with you. I know this is the busy postal season, but I hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas, despite your schedule.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I love historical fiction, but not if it drags. Check out Bruce Catton's trilogy for some really good historical fiction, and I wish for you a very Merry Christmas.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Pamela. Either that or we lived in blissful ignorance of the dangers around us. Maybe ignorance is bliss.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi again Mel, I have asked the same question. It was a happier time. We didn't need safe spaces and we knew how to work hard also. Maybe we lived in the best of times in many ways.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric. I'm glad you think I got a dinger because I usually whiff on this off speed stuff, or hit foul.

      Thanks for taking a break from your Sunday sermonizing to check in. It gratifies me that I inspired some meaningful discussion between you and your boy.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      5 months ago from San Diego California

      Those were happier times, Pamela, when we could joke about shooting up the school and nobody would put us on lockdown, because they knew we were just having fun. Where did we go wrong as a society? Thanks for dropping in. Merry Christmas!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Best ever bro. You knock that stupid side-harmed slider out of the park.

      I was wondering ( due to you) if fiction based on fact is better than straight fact? You teach so much.

      I just spent 10 minutes with Gabe // poor child// discussing the Civil War. Thanks to you. Right on.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I also remember those songs of my youth in schools.This is an interesting review about John Brown even if the book doesn't sound like the best read. I really enjoy reading your reviews as you have a unique way of writing that is enjoyable. I like historical novels and am currently reading about Texas fighters and the despicable Santa Ana.

      John Brown did make an important change for our country but he sure did it in a very horrible way. I would say he accomplished his goals and it is an important part of history. Thanks for your excellent book review.

      Have a Merry Christmas, Mel.

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