Picks and Pans Review: Cloudsplitter

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Russell Banks

Massive, startlingly vivid, morally and intellectually challenging, Russell Banks's bold historical novel resurrects John Brown, the radical abolitionist whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., helped ignite the Civil War. Convincingly restored to life, Brown forces the old, anguished question: Was the appalling bloodshed of that war the only way to purge the sin of slavery?

Banks enlists Brown's son and lieutenant, Owen, to tell a story grounded in established fact. Though Owen's gloomy, guilt-plagued thoughts are pure invention, his account of the charismatic, Bible-quoting Brown is faithful to the biographical record. Was the man who ordered the 1856 massacre of five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kans., a lunatic or a saint? To Owen, Brown was avenging a history spiked with hideous racial crimes: "bubbles of blood on a barbed steel strand."

The burden of the telling weighs heavily on the son's shoulders, and 758 pages are too long to be cooped up with a narrator whose favorite word is "somber." More ambitious and less perfect than the best of Banks's novels, Cloudsplitter just manages to justify its bulk. John Brown's story, his implacable rage against injustice, will not lie moldering in the grave: In the pages of this book, at least, his truth goes marching on. (HarperCollins, $27.50)"

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