Banks's ambitious portrait of abolitionist John Brown, whose famed (and failed) attempt to liberate slaves in the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry earned him a place in American history books as both martyr and madman, is fictionalized history, not historical fiction. Cloudsplitter imagines for Brown a storyline of familial and romantic turmoil, as remembered by his 75-year-old son Owen, forty years after his father's death (he was executed for his role at Harpers Ferry). As Owen recounts an impoverished childhood, his acquaintance with Negroes in the Underground Railroad, and his role as a member of the “Army of God”, his egomania emerges and his reliability as narrator becomes fascinatingly suspect. Banks's book turns into a sprawling inquiry into the religious apocalyptic fervor that fueled Brown's abolitionist politics and the violence at Harpers, held together by beautiful prose and gripping detail.
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