Cold Mountainby Charles Frazier
Charles Frazier's debut novel, Cold Mountain, is the story of a very long walk. In the waning months of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate veteran named Inman gets up from his hospital bed and begins the long journey back to his home in the remote hills of North Carolina. Along the way he meets rogues and outlaws, Good Samaritans and vigilantes, people who help and others who hinder, but through it all Inman's aim is true: his one goal is to return to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he left behind. The object of his affection, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Raised in the rarified air of Charleston society, Ada was brought to the backwoods of Cold Mountain by her father, a preacher who came to the country for his health. Even after her father's death, Ada remains there, partly to wait for Inman, but partly because she senses her destiny lies not in the city but in the North Carolina Blue Ridge.
Cold Mountain is the story of two parallel journeys: Inman's physical trek across the American landscape and Ada's internal odyssey toward an understanding of herself. What makes Frazier's novel so satisfying is the depth of detail surrounding both journeys. Frazier based this story on family history, and in the characters of Inman and Ada he has paid a rich compliment to their historical counterparts. Cold Mountain is, quite simply, a wonderful book.
Cloudsplitterby Russell Banks
Amazon.com: The cover of Russell Banks's mountain-sized novel Cloudsplitter features an actual photo of Owen Brown, the son of John Brown--the hero of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" whose terrorist band murdered proponents of slavery in Kansas and attacked Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 on what he considered direct orders from God, helping spark the Civil War.
A deeply researched but fictionalized Owen narrates this remarkably realistic and ambitious novel by the already distinguished author of The Sweet Hereafter. Owen is an atheist, but he is as haunted and dominated by his father, John Brown, as John was haunted by an angry God who demanded human sacrifice to stop the abomination of slavery.
Cloudsplitter takes you along on John Brown's journey--as period-perfect as that of the Civil War deserter in Cold Mountain--from Brown's cabin facing the great Adirondack mountain (called "the Cloudsplitter" by the Indians) amid an abolitionist settlement the blacks there call "Timbuctoo," to the various perilous stops of the Underground Railroad spiriting slaves out of the South, and finally to the killings in Bloody Kansas and the Harpers Ferry revolt. We meet some great names--Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a (fictional) lover of Nathaniel Hawthorne--but the vast book keeps a tight focus on the aged Owen's obsessive recollections of his pa's crusade and the emotional shackles John clamped on his own family.
Banks, a white author, has tackled the topic of race as impressively as Toni Morrison in novels such as Continental Drift. What makes Cloudsplitter a departure for him is its style and scope. He is noted as an exceptionally thorough chronicler of America today in rigorously detailed realist fiction (he championed Snow Falling on Cedars). Banks spent half a decade researching Cloudsplitter, and he renounces the conventional magic of his poetical prose style for a voice steeped in the King James Bible and the stately cadences of 19th-century political rhetoric. The tone is closer to Ken Burns's tragic, elegiac The Civil War than to the recent crazy-quilt modernist novel about John Brown, Raising Holy Hell.
Amazon.com interview with Russell Banks
Amistadby David Pesci
From Booklist , 05/15/97: Pesci's first novel is a well-researched fictionalization of the Amistad rebellion and trials. In 1839, the Spanish schooner Amistad (which means friendship) was carrying slaves illegally captured in Africa, up the east coast of the United States. The captives were able to overcome the crew and then attempted to take the ship back to Africa. The vessel was eventually caught and towed to Connecticut, where the rebels were put on trial to determine whether they were escaping slaves or freemen fighting for their rights. With tensions already running high over the slavery issue, the affair threatened to be the catalyst for igniting civil war. President Van Buren, who supported slavery, secretly attempted to have the Africans kidnapped and returned to their Spanish captors, while ex-president John Quincy Adams supplied legal advice to the defendants. After a protracted series of trials, ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court, the prisoners won their freedom and returned to Africa. A thought-provoking look at a fascinating episode of American history. Copyrightę 1997, American Library Association. All rights reserved
Hardcover, 240 pages / Marlowe & Co / May 1997
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Mutiny on the Amistadby Howard Jones
Synopsis:Reissued to coincide with Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Amistad", this true saga of a slave revolt and its impact on American abolition, law, and diplomacy is based on thorough research and provides excellent and detailed coverage of its subject. "A rousing and satisfying tale".--"American Heritage".
Reissue Edition / Paperback, 292 pages /Oxford University Press (Trade) / December 1997
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Holy Warriors : The Abolitionists and American Slaveryby James Brewer Stewart, Eric Foner
History Editor's Recommended Book, 08/01/97: The abolitionist movement, writes Stewart in this engaging study, grew out of a number of historical conditions in early American society. Fearful of secularism and materialism, and disdainful of the luxurious life of the upper class, evangelical Christians of varying ethnicity banded together to forge a religious revival called the Great Awakening. In the South these evangelicals, especially the Quakers, confronted slave-holding Anglicans. They steadily worked to convert pro-slavery individuals, and they were often successful. By recruiting escaped slaves to speak out publicly against "the peculiar institution," the abolitionists galvanized public opinion outside the South, leading to the sectionalism that would later find its ultimate expression in the Civil War. Stewart's account of the important role that women played in the abolitionist movement is of special interest.
Paperback, 240 pages / Hill & Wang Pub / January 1997
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An Abolitionist in the Appalachian South : Ezekiel Birdseye on Slavery, Capitalism, and Separate Statehood in East Tennessee, 1841-1846by Ezekiel Birdseye, Dunn Durwood, Durwood Dunn
Card catalog description: This volume, a collection of letters written by an abolitionist businessman who lived in East Tennessee prior to the Civil War, provides one of the clearest firsthand views yet published of a region whose political, social, and economic distinctions have intrigued historians for more than a century. Between 1841 and 1846, Birdseye expressed his views and observations in letters to Gerrit Smith, a prominent New York reformer who arranged to have many of them published in antislavery newspapers such as the Emancipator and Friend of Man. Those letters, reproduced in this book, drew on Birdseye's extensive conversations with slaveholders, nonslaveholders, and the slaves themselves. He found that East Tennesseans, on the whole, were antislavery in sentiment, susceptible to rational abolitionist appeal, and generally far more lenient toward individual slaves than were other southerners. Opposed to slavery on economic as well as moral grounds, Birdseye sought to establish a free labor colony in East Tennessee in the early 1840s and actively supported the region's abortive effort in 1842 to separate itself from the rest of the state.
Hardcover / Univ of Tennessee Pr / July 1997
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Born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1941, Russell Banks rebelled against his violently abusive plumber dad and stole a car at 16 for a cross-country jaunt. Two years later he spurned a full scholarship to Colgate, intending to join Castro's revolution, but instead settled in Florida and became a Sixties-radical-cum-plumber. At 35 he published his first book, and won modest renown as a blue-collar chronicler akin to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. Since then, Banks's reputation has steadily grown--bolstered, most recently, by the Oscar-nominated film of The Sweet Hereafter. Now, with Cloudsplitter, he has produced what many (but not all) critics consider the capstone to a brilliant career. Banks spoke to Amazon.com's Tim Appelo about writing, terrorism, and the violent career of the abolitionist martyr John Brown.
Amazon.com: Cloudsplitter is basically a portrait of John Brown, who was executed in 1860 after killing proslavers in Kansas and attacking a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Yet the portrait comes to us by way of his son and fellow warrior Owen, who narrates the book. How does Owen feel about his father?
Russell Banks: He admires his principles, but he doesn't believe in his father's God. And that gets complicated because his father's principles come straight from God! One of the stories I was very interested in trying to tell--retell, really, since so much fiction is retelling--was the story of Abraham and Isaac. But I wanted to tell it from Isaac's point of view, which is the one I always identified with as a kid.
Amazon.com: Why was that?
Banks: Because I was a child, I guess! But it also always struck me as terribly unjust that Abraham would be willing to sacrifice his son. I couldn't imagine myself doing that. Yet I could imagine myself, somehow, being in powerless thrall to my father's decision-making.
Amazon.com: It's also easier to plunge into the son's mind than the fanatic father's.
Banks: Right. You're dealing with a mythic figure, with John Brown, and it's very hard to approach a mythic figure directly. He resists being made human. In order to make him human, which is what I was interested in doing, you really have to get up close and in his face from somebody else's point of view--someone who knows and loves him. And Owen Brown turned out to be the ideal person.
The historical Owen Brown was born in 1824. Two of his brothers, along with two of his brothers-in-law, were killed at Harpers Ferry--he was the only son who escaped. He's also an ideal witness because he never told his story. He vanished into the abolitionists' equivalent of the Weather Underground. Then he resurfaced on a mountaintop in Altadena, California, and lived his life out as a hermit shepherd.
So Owen was the ideal narrator. And once he started talking, of course, I became totally fascinated with him, and the book evolved very quickly into a story about the dynamic between him and his father.
Amazon.com: The Unabomber may be on my mind, since I recently interviewed one of his victims, David Gelernter, but when I looked at that shack on your book jacket, I thought, Ted!
Banks: I thought the same thing! You know, the picture on the cover is actually Owen Brown himself, and that is his cabin. It looks remarkably like Kaczynski's cabin, doesn't it? They seem to have hired the same architect.
Amazon.com: They share a philosophical tradition as well.
Banks: Oh, that runs right through American history, all the way up to Ted Kaczynski and even Timothy McVeigh. That's another story that I'm trying to tell--the evolution of an activist, an idealist, into a terrorist and finally a martyr. That evolution is common in American history, and yet it's one which we avert our gaze from. We dehumanize terrorists; we take away from them any past, any evolutionary pattern, and treat them as if they were plainly psychotic. Yet the path that John Brown follows is one that we could see anyplace in the world today, from Sri Lanka to the Middle East, from Ireland to Oklahoma City. And I think it's important to try to understand that. Not to condone it--but to understand it, to humanize it some way.
Amazon.com: Another interesting relationship in Cloudsplitter is the one between the black abolitionist Lyman Epps and the Brown family. Just as Owen is enslaved to his father's ideals, so too is Lyman's family. You could argue that they're under the white thumb as surely as anybody in the South, albeit less brutally.
Banks: There is that sad irony. This utterly contrived social construct of race is so deep in our culture that even in someone as elevated on the subject as John Brown, it's still impossible to escape.
Amazon.com: Apparently The Scarlet Letter was on your mind while you wrote this book, because Owen meets a guilt-ridden in-law of
Nathaniel Hawthorne's named Sarah. They're on a boat on the Atlantic, and she's suicidal--it was like Titanic, only better drama.
Banks: May I have the same kind of success! Well, you know, it's a classic 19th-century image, the drowning young woman. It's a motif that keeps appearing in romantic poetry: how much of Edgar Allan Poe is drenched in that slightly erotic fantasy of the drowning woman! So I was really just invoking that, and also trying to bring Owen into some kind of romance about women.
Amazon.com: So why drag Hawthorne into it?
Banks: As a kind of intertextual joke. It was an attempt to understand through fiction the relationship that may well exist between an author's private life and his fiction--by positing that maybe Sarah Peabody was impregnated by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Amazon.com: Well, you use the word "pearl" there, I notice, which is the love child's name in The Scarlet Letter.
Banks: You picked it all up! It's also for the graduate students of the future, I guess.
Amazon.com: Sorry, you can't hide from Amazon.com. Anyway, students of your work may note that you, too, were a Northerner who went South, and that some of your earliest stories were about the martyred revolutionary Che Guevara.
Banks: Yes, I wrote a whole series called With Che In.... The reader was supposed to fill in the blank--in New Hampshire, you know, or in different parts of the world.
Amazon.com: How does that young author compare to the author of Cloudsplitter?
Banks: Gee, that's a good question! It's a hard one. In those early works I was much more conscious of the formalistic aspects of fiction. Obviously, I was still learning my craft and needed, as a result, to assert the formal aspects of the work more aggressively than I do now. These days I'm perfectly willing to let them lie beneath the surface.
Amazon.com: Cloudsplitter and The Sweet Hereafter couldn't be more different, yet you can still detect a family resemblance.
Banks: They're both done in American vernacular speech, although one is 19th-century and the other is late 20th-century. And in both cases you're not overtly conscious of an underlying structure, and there isn't a self-conscious, self-reflexive and, if you want, self-admiring kind of formality to them. I hope not, anyhow.
Amazon.com: Why the title?
Banks: Cloudsplitter? It's the English translation of the word tahawus, an Iroquois name of the mountain that Brown's house faced--still does, actually--in upstate New York.
Amazon.com: Was he conscious of its symbolism?
Banks: I doubt it. But when I got the name, I suddenly thought it was a pretty good image for the whole book, and for Brown himself. It ties into that physical world in a very concrete way. And that was the role he played in his family, too. At the risk of being incredibly simplistic or simply authoritarian, he split the clouds! He said, "All right, that will be the end of that! No more fuzzy thinking."
Amazon.com: That sort of impatience still crops up in America.
Banks: Oh, it does. The image of John Brown was so important to the radical left in the 1960s, just as he's been so important to the radical right--the militias and the anti-abortion movement--during the 1980s and 1990s. He has great power for anyone who's appealing to a higher law.
And that appeal to something above--something pure, clear, cleaner and absolute--is really built into the American psyche, I think, right from the Puritans on.
Amazon.com: What did you do during the 1960s?
Banks: I was in the South, and was very involved in the civil rights and the anti-war movements. I was also a founding member of the SDS chapter in Chapel Hill, and like most anybody who was active at that place and time, I was bounced in and out of jail.
Amazon.com: Did that inform this book?
Banks: Oh, yeah, very much! In fact, that's where Brown first came to me as a figure, because I was studying American literature at Chapel Hill and was very hung up on mid-19th-century New England writers like Emerson and Thoreau, Whittier, and the Transcendentalists. Brown kept popping up in their parlors, you know, and showing up in their correspondence and journals.
Amazon.com: Brown called the Transcendentalists the "Boston Ladies." Do you think they secretly worried that his disdain was merited?
Banks: Oh, sure! He was out there! I think intellectuals who have become politicized always feel shamed by the man of action. And I'm sure Brown made those boys feel a little awkward at times.
Amazon.com: After Emerson makes a memorable speech in your book, Owen says, "Mr. Emerson had used language in an oblique and original way that, while it made his personality shine brilliantly, also had made the ostensible subject of his talk opaque, so that, to understand him, one had practically to invent for oneself what he was saying." He's got Emerson nailed!
Banks: The talk that Emerson delivers is the essay on heroism, and it seemed to me that he was calling for a Brown-like figure. Brown visited Emerson later on, after Kansas, and gave a speech in Concord which Emerson attended around 1858. So there was a connection between them both historically and, I think, politically. Not philosophically, however: Emerson was such a lapsed Christian. By John Brown's light he was a pagan.
Amazon.com: Emerson also said that the visible universe was the back of the carpet, and you could only see the figure in the carpet from the other side. I'm sure the literalist John Brown wouldn't have tolerated that concept for a moment.
Banks: Of course not! For Brown, his life was an unwritten book of the Bible, which continued right on into the present. There wasn't any sense of it as allegory or metaphor--from his point of view, he was living in a biblical age.
Amazon.com: Brown uses the Bible so cleverly. Few Christians read the story of Gideon for tips on battle tactics.
Banks: I know! He turns it into a military manual! That was great fun, looking through the Bible for ways in which John Brown could use it to plan a kidnapping or conduct a raid in Kansas in the 1850s.
Amazon.com: Of course, John Brown is more Old Testament than the Old Testament. Though I'm sure he would refer to it as the Right Testament and the Wrong Testament.
Banks: That's right. [chuckling]
Amazon.com: You've spent long periods of your life in the North, where you currently live in upstate New York, and the South. This split often seems to be mirrored in your work.
Banks: I've always had this kind of bipolar lifestyle, split between northern New England and the Caribbean, or South Florida. And between urban and rural, and between isolation and social, gregarious worlds. There's almost always a bipolar quality in my work, too. In the new book, you have these two central characters, Owen and John Brown. In Affliction, you have two brothers, and in Continental Drift there's the Haitian story and the white American story.
You don't know what's going on at the time--you realize it afterwards. You look at the latest book and you say, "Oh, yeah! I'm still working that piece of turf! The old father-and-son thing, eh?"
Amazon.com: Perhaps because Cloudsplitter echoes your previous work--and your own biography--some reviewers have complained that you bent history to your own artistic purposes.
Banks: All I can say is, hey, you don't read fiction as history--not any more than you would read Gone With the Wind to understand what happened in Atlanta or Shakespeare to learn the history of the British monarchy.
Amazon.com: And yet Cloudsplitter doesn't come across as tendentious--especially in comparison with Gore Vidal's marvelous but highly colored novel Lincoln, which has prompted complaints that the author gives you more Vidal than Lincoln.
Banks: I did try to stay out of the way and let Owen tell his story. That's increasingly become my technique: getting myself as much out of the way as possible and transcribing the story of another person.
Amazon.com: Give us the bottom line: Was John Brown mad, bad, or just dangerous to know?
Banks: People have said to me, "Well, what do you really think about John Brown?" And I say, I can't judge him. The whole point of writing a novel is not to judge your characters.