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Tim Stafford


The Puzzle of John Brown

Cloudsplitter
by Russell Banks
HarperCollins
758 pp.; $27.50

I have tried to think of a parallel figure in American history, and failed. Militarily, Harpers Ferry was smaller than any number of violent events we ourselves have seen in the past decade. Waco comes to mind. Yet John Brown was not a nut, like David Koresh—his beliefs were stern but well within the purview of orthodox faith.

He was a Christian who cared so deeply about a moral issue that he determined to take violent means to oppose it. He had what is sometimes called, not quite accurately, an Old Testament faith, in which God may call the righteous to uproot and destroy the unrighteous.

I imagine that whoever plants bombs in abortion clinics thinks of himself as Brown did. The differences, however, are striking. If one of our abortion clinic bombers got himself caught, and broadcast from his jail cell powerful statements of God's judgment on America for its abortion sins, he would not grip the nation as John Brown did. The bomber would be denounced and dismissed from every side as a dangerous fanatic, and that would be that. We have not reached the pitch of anguish that Americans then had over slavery. Perhaps we lack the moral framework of justice they had. At any rate, an anti-abortion John Brown is unthinkable today.

Cloudsplitterdoes not capture the white-hot fervor of John Brown's time, nor the way in which this strange, misshapen individual could wrestle a whole country into a terrible war. The novel focuses, not on the nation, but on how John Brown affected his family, particularly Owen, who does not believe in God but cannot get free of his father.

It happens to be true that John Brown's sons did not all stick to the faith he taught them, but they largely stuck to the morals that went with the faith. Thus they followed the old man into battle, even murdering at his command, though they could not trust (as he did) that they did God's will. This, as Banks portrays the family, is the real mystery. ...

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