The tangled complexities of this muscular literary tome Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks are truly phenomenal. An often challenging, disturbing, heart-wrenching, beautiful, horrifying, and trying, book, it takes the reader for a long and arduous ride, disrupting his or her emotions equally, alongside the characters who live this profound tale. This novel requires surrender – a “joining” if you will, into the gnarled root that simultaneously splays outward/inward, revealing its history: the pain, humiliation, love, union; the complicity, and barricades – external and internal, both, of slavery. We, the reader, spiral downward, looping over and over, deeper and deeper, until our feet walk this root with our hearts thumping hard against our chests as we begin to understand, to see, the enormity of this “story’s” scope and the heinous entangled web in which all have played a part.
There are moments of surging elegance, that lift like a dream for those who read for the love of language. As I lay in the bath last night reading, I read and re-read a particular passage that made me hold my breath for its beauty and movement and complexity. Here it is:
“I stared up into his narrow, dark, closed face: he was thinking not of the gun in his hand but of the lion, I saw – the beautiful, powerful, ferocious mountain lion, an animal from another world than ours, a beast controlled and driven, from its first breath to its last, by hungers and fears that Lyman and I had been privy to only in the most terrible moments of our lives. We could not forget those moments; the lion could not distinguish them from any other. The beast’s sudden, long leap from the rock across water to land had been extraordinarily beautiful and at once familiar and strange, like the best, last line of a beloved hymn, a graceful arc from bright, certain death to the dark impenetrable mystery of the forest. Why could I not make that same leap? From my place out there on the back of the rough, gray rock, I peered across the water to the thicket of willows at the shore and the trees beyond, up the beech-and hickory-covered slope to the spruces and the tangled heights and rocky parapets above, where I imagined the lion now, moving in solitude freely and safely all day and night, tracking down its prey and suddenly leaping upon it, pulling it to the ground with its great weight and the brutal fury of its attack, rolling it over in the soft, rust-colored pine needles, and burying its hungry mouth in the body. (p. 470-471).
These two pages, which fall at the end of the middle act of this novel, expose the profound internal affliction and malaise of Owen Brown, the son of the mighty Slave Abolitionist John Brown. But they do so much more than that – these two pages illuminate the vast, multifarious, sinister complexities of slavery and how this heinous construct – that our “modern day society” STILL suffers and struggles through under its dim and not so distant shadow – implicates ALL who are touched by its dark and despicable web, whether they are fighting for it, or against it…no one is immune. John Brown (to please his father? to please himself?) has spent his life in pursuit of ridding the United States of slavery, risking his life repeatedly moving slaves through the “underground tunnels” toward freedom. And yet…. For John Brown, who for all purposes, stands decidedly on the right side of slavery – he suffers the horrors, the complexities, of this deeply lodged, inexplicable, unknowable “yet”… much like you and me – we distant relatives of this deplorable time, this deplorable act, this deplorable stain that continues to “color” the way we see.
I will begin to read the 3rd and final act of this book tonight, nearly 200 pages long (the heft of this novel weighs in at 671 pages). I wonder if clarity will shine into the heart of John Brown; somehow I feel this will not be his fate. The depths of humanity, indeed the single human being, never cease to enrich my understanding of what it means to live – alongside the challenges that arise no matter which road we follow. The challenges we often have no control over – but our response to those challenges, we must ever strive. I believe that is the inhale to our journey.
Highly recommend that you read this book some day. It is edifying…confusing…difficult…rich…challenging. All the best reasons to read:)