Summer reading;Children in wartime;Books

27th August 1999 at 01:00
CLOUDSPLITTER. By Russell Banks. Vintage pound;7.99

A chunky big-picture novel which takes in the political and social landscape of pre-Civil-War America, a cause (abolition) and a family (John Brown's).


David Longson is deputy head of Abbeydale Grange School, Sheffield. Tony Lythe lives in Wiltshire and is an examiner in English at A-level, GCSE and for the International Baccalaureate. Anita Yearsley is a school effectiveness advisory teacher in Cumbria. Catriona Vass teaches at Langlees Primary School, Falkirk. Elisabeth Bamforth is applying for research posts. Hilary Tomney is librarian at Laurel Park School, Glasgow.

DL An exceptional book: a gripping, grim, enthralling tale which sweeps the reader along, while raising key issues. What is the nature of visionary leadership (headteachers please note) and how does it affect those in its wake? Other big questions are raised: race, relationships, gender, belief and unbelief. The context, 19th-century America, is detailed and convincing, but the issues are universal.

TL As narrator, John Brown's son Owen gives the novel much of its considerable power. The reader becomes part of the tortured consciousness of a sensitive, psychologically-maimed son struggling to gain identity and acceptance from an authoritarian, patriarchal father. It is a harrowing experience, for John fails his family, as many heroes do, in the pursuit of his crusade. Banks's fictionalised account of the events leading to the doomed attack on Harper's Ferry is authentic and illuminating, culminating in the memorable, panoramic description of the raid itself. The American landscape in all its moods is evoked magnificently, and the Browns' harsh life, with death and privation constant companions, is captured tenderly but unsentimentally. The episodic structure and dramatic plot help to keep this long novel gripping and entertaining.

AY Slowly, gradually, inexorably, you are drawn into the stream of consciousness of Owen Brown. You experience at first hand his growth from childhood to manhood and the burgeoning, stormy relationship with his father and his almost schizophrenic beliefs. These personal contradictions within and between father and son are mirrored by the contradictions within and between the families, the peoples and the developing country of North America leading up to the start of the American Civil War. A challenging, disturbing and at times harrowing read - but always thought-provokingly brilliant.

CV Owen Brown is a guilty man. He lived when his father, brothers and friends died in a situation he feels responsible for creating. His story is a brilliant insight into a man, a country, a torn society, interwoven with issues of relationships and racism. Dominating it all is his father, John Brown; preacher, anti-slave protagonist, patriarch - for Owen both the elixir of life and the emotional bind that he strains against. This is a powerful and absorbing book, a rite of passage, both for Owen and for American society.

EB The superbly drawn characters and well written dialogue make this a tremendous novel. By using a little known historical figure for the narrator, Banks is able to paint such a detailed picture of 19th-century life that you feel as if you are living there and to explore the different facets of the slavery issue in the time before the Civil War. Yet it is his delving into the character of John Brown that holds this epic together.

HT Do not be put off by the thickness of this book, a wonderful rollercoaster ride through a period of the life of the abolitionist John Brown and his family as told by his son, Owen. An enthralling, vivid fictional account of a key period in United States history which will keep you turning pages.

Next week: By the Light of My Father's Smile by Alice Walker (Women's Press)

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