History: This book is considered historical fiction, and published in 1998.
Plot: Owen Brown, an old man wracked with guilt and living alone in the California hills, answers a query from an historian who is writing about the life and times of Owen's famous abolitionist father, John Brown. In an effort to release the demons of his past so that he can die in peace, Owen casts back his memory to his youth, and the days of the Kansas Wars which led up to the raid on Harper's Ferry. As he begins describing his childhood in Ohio, in Western Pennsylvania, and in the mountain village of North Elba, NY, Owen reveals himself to be a deeply conflicted youth, one whose personality is totally overshadowed by the dominating presence of his father. A tanner of hides and an unsuccessful wholesaler of wool, John Brown is torn between his yearnings for material success and his deeply passionate desire to rid the United States of the scourge of slavery. Having taken an oath to God to dedicate his life and the lives of his children to ending slavery, he finds himself constantly thwarted by his ever-increasing debts due to a series of disastrous business ventures. As he drags his family from farmstead to farmstead in evasion of the debt collectors, he continues his vital work on the Underground Railroad, escorting escaped slaves into Canada. As his work brings him into contact with great abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other figures from that era, Brown finds his commitment to action over rhetoric growing ever more fervent. But it is his son Owen--slowly maturing from a quiet, nervous young man into a bloodthirsty warrior--who finally urges his father toward the path of violence. This is the story of a rural family's wrenching transformation from anti-slavery agitators into political terrorists, and finally, tragically into martyrs.
Review: When a novelist tells you what’s going to happen at the end of the book on page 1, you know you’re going to be disappointed. When he tells you this at the beginning of a 758 page novel, you can be forgiven for getting downright angry. All you’re left to go on then are the literary themes. Thankfully, Banks writes a better theme than a story.
The story is of John Brown (yes, the one whose body lies a-moldering) as seen from the eyes of one, Owen Brown, of his sons. It’s a novel about how your father can seriously muck up or make your life. It’s Sons and Lovers with a paternal twist, 450 extra pages and not half the literary style. I think the novel works here as Lawrence’s does with great dollops of angst and confusion. But, if any of us have grown up at all, this is one thing we’re pretty much aware of anyway.
The novel is also about how religious fanaticism can help you miss the big picture. As the novel goes on, John Brown adapts his beliefs nicely to suit his circumstances carefully picking and choosing which elements of God he feels are relevant and remaining ignorant of those which would stop him in his tracks if he were to actually read his Bible in its entirety. In stark contrast, and to show that it isn’t the fault of Christ that Brown went off the rails theologically, Abraham Lincoln didn’t lose the big picture. I’m not so sure that this theme is worked through enough as the narrator confesses agnosticism and therefore confuses the issues with his own lack of theological clarity.
Banks also deals with slavery and this I think works. He shows well how deeply rooted this can be and how blind we can be too it. I’m glad I’ve read plenty of stuff from a black perspective to balance this novel against.
While Banks himself in his introduction emphases that this is a novel and that he has collapsed various events into one another for dramatic effect, and not been fully accurate to some historical characters, it is nonetheless clear that he has done enormous research into Brown’s life, and given the power of Banks’s storytelling, I would expect the novel will hold its own in the historical corpus not only on the life of John Brown, but on the half century of American life leading toward the Civil War.
John Brown was a radical abolitionist believing that only violent action, sort of a Biblical purging, could destroy the morally evil institution of slavery. Brown was convinced that not only was God on his side, but that he personally communed with God and was doing God’s bidding in his work. He worked with non-violent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but believed their well-intentioned tactics would never end slavery.
Opening Line: “Upon waking this cold, gray morning from a troubled sleep, I realized for the hundredth time, but this time with deep conviction, that my words and behavior towards you were disrespectful, and rude and selfish as well.”
Closing Line: “The trees were blue-black and flattened in the moonlight, and the fields seemed to be covered with a skin of powdery snow.”
Quotes: “You aint half the man your father is.”
“when one understands a human being, no matter how oppressive he has been, compassion inevitably follows.”
“white is as much a color as black”
“If a person is called “colored,” let all be colored.”