My kids, my partner and I recently took a trip to Kansas City. On the way home, we drove down highway 169, passing through Pottawatomie, Kansas. There’s a brown road sign, very official-looking, that informs you of the John Brown Museum located right there in Pottawatomie. We already knew about that, though, because we’d passed through a few years ago and didn’t have time to stop. Now, we were all excited. The kids were sleeping in the backseat, but the John Brown Museum would be worth waking up for.
We pulled off the highway and then we realized it was early on a Sunday afternoon, and the museum would probably not be open. How right we were. Except for the Sonic drive-in, which was the only place to eat, the town was completely dead. We finally passed a rickety old store front with a hand-lettered sign in the window saying “Do You Know Who John Brown Is?” I don’t know what I was expecting, certainly not the Nelson-Atkins, but this was a bit disappointing. We drove a little further along Main Street, wondering what the hell people did for fun in Pottawatomie, and then we left.
Still, it was fun, driving through Kansas and trying to picture John Brown with his sons and followers riding through the area on horseback. Everything I know about John Brown comes from reading Russell Banks excellent novel “Cloudsplitter”. Here’s a link to a great review if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the end. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98may/brown.htm.
I’ts not a spoiler because the real story is inside of the character’s minds. Russell Banks tells you right from the outset that he changes some historical facts to improve the flow of the story. And that’s okay. Except that when reading it you’re always wondering what is true and what isn’t. The important thing is that it brings history alive in the way that dry textbooks can’t.
Before reading Cloudsplitter., I’d never thought much about the civil war. Now I’m thinking about things like the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. What divided times the 1850’s were. It almost reminds me of now. The main difference was that the earth was still whole then and the weather wasn’t so weird. There’s a strange optimism in the works of Russell Banks, an optimism I’m not sure I can fully share in.