Set in the waning months of the American Civil War, this deeply affecting historical novel betrays only minimal interest in that war's celebrated commanders. In fact, its main use of such figures is to characterize its protagonist by rejecting, as he does, their views of war and death. In the first chapter, Inman, the wounded protagonist, remembers fighting at Maryes Heights in Fredericksburg, where generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet "spent the afternoon up on the hill coining fine phrases like a pair of wags" while under their detached gazes men died in one of the most horrendous military engagements in history. Inman is troubled by the fact that "Lee seemed to think battle . . . stood outranked in sacredness only by prayer and Bible reading." This common soldier cannot accept the view of war as a divine instrument. He has fought with his regiment at Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg. He fought only because his homeland was being invaded. Now, somehow still alive after suffering a catastrophic neck wound, he has had enough of war.
In Cold Mountain the great figures of history thus appear only in the remembered action of the book, recalled, as are the batdes they launched, by the man who wants only to get home. But some of Cold Mountain's other characters also have their origins in history. Author Charles Frazier had an ancestor named Inman who fought in the Civil War and who as the war drew to a close simply deserted like many Confederates and returned on foot to civilian life. Also during his research Frazier learned that two apparently harmless civilians in western North Carolina, models for the characters Stobrod and Pangle, were killed by a group of Confederate Home Guard led by a man named, like Frazier's villain, Teague. And historians know that there were numerous women like Ada and Ruby in Frazier's novel, most of them unrecorded in history, who kept farms going through the worst times of the war. In their details, however, Cold Mountain's characters are Frazier's creations. Inman and Ada, the man and the woman at the center of this narrative, share a tendency toward the unconventional as well as a timeless, fundamental decency.
At the beginning of the novel, however, these two main characters are meant to contrast sharply, and for most of the book they are dealt with in alternating chapters. One is on the move; the other stays home. Inman encounters people of all descriptions, peculiarities, dispositions, motives, and backgrounds, each in one way or another a help or a hindrance to his journey home and most providing lessons in domestic lives or sexual loves that have gone badly awry. Ada encounters balky animals and resistant plants, each a lesson in the ways of nature and a problem to be solved in the quest for survival. Inman is a stoic male of few illusions and apparently no family ties, a man who seems surrounded by death, indeed infected by it. Ada is a sheltered and imaginative female, a recently orphaned Charleston socialite brought up by her minister father on the Transcendentalism of the Romantic writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. She sees life everywhere, although at first the life she encounters proves obdurate and puzzling. Inman possesses survival skills of a most ferocious nature; the LeMatt's pistol he carries, "the fiercest sidearm in existence," is a symbol of his "gift" for killing and for surviving. Although witty and headstrong, Ada has remained something of a dreamy and impractical child into adulthood; she spends the first three months after her father's death not growing and preserving food but reading novels.
As the narrative unfolds, the despairing and damaged but extraordinarily competent soldier of the first chapter and the lively and hopeful but comically inept young woman of the second chapter grow to be more like each other. As they draw geographically closer and are finally reunited, the self-reliant warrior heals and begins to hope, and the Victorian lady not only sheds the protective shell of corset that was once the emblem of her inhibitions, but she dons a man's clothing, symbol of her new freedom, then hunts and kills her own food, and finally becomes confident enough to step out of all clothing to accept the ultimate vulnerability of physical love.
In the final chapters Inman moves decisively away from despair toward a kind of mysticism in his encounters with the mysterious life force of animals, in particular bears; and in the penultimate chapter passionate words pour from this ordinarily laconic character. In those final chapters Ada gives up nearly the last vestiges of her literary, generalized view of life as she buries the murdered boy Pangle, seeing clearly the bitter particularity of death; and she has given up the "pose and irony" of witty, self-protective language, having taught herself to speak from her heart, "straight and simple and unguarded."
Inman is shot by both Yankees and Confederates. By the end of the novel he has long since crawled literally out of the earth, out of the shallow grave he was shoveled...
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Birch is the youngest member of Teague’s Home Guard. He appears to have some measure of humanity when after he listens to Pangle and Stobrod play, he is so moved that he calls them holy men. Yet he does not hesitate to help kill the two an Inman, too, at the end of the novel.
Inman meets an elderly mountain woman who is later referred to as “the goatwoman” on his journey home. Her humanity is evident as she cares for his wounds and feeds him. On the surface, she appears hardened, due to the difficult life that she has lived, but her eyes “were wells of kindness despite all her hard talk.” She has been able to retain an optimistic perspective. She insists: “our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.” At this point, Inman is not able to agree, but her kindness toward him does help provide him with the spirit to continue his journey.
Inman, one of the novel’s two main characters, initially thinks of himself as a peaceful man, but once he faces the battlefield, he discovers “fighting had come easy to him,” which he considers “a gift.” Yet this gift plagues him throughout his journey home, prompting him to wonder if after so much application of this gift, he has lost his soul.
Even though he tries to harden himself to others in an effort to ensure his own survival, his large heart cannot allow him to ignore those who are suffering, which often puts him in harm’s way. He also has a strong sense of justice, evident when he saves the woman Veasey tries to drown and forces the preacher to return to the town and face his punishment. Toward the end of this journey, Inman feels tremendous guilt over the accidental death of a bear that charges him and his subsequent killing of her cub, which he knows will not survive without her. He forces himself to eat the cub, following the laws of nature, but it tastes “like sin” and “regret.”
Inman had a great desire for freedom, as evident in his story about being bored in the classroom and his constant desire to walk out the hospital window. He enlists in the war not to uphold slavery but to stave off the influence of the North, which he sees as a threat to his way of life. He also values solitude and self-reliance, dreaming of the time when he can live up on Cold Mountain with Ada. He shows his resourcefulness when he repeatedly finds a way out of a predicament, as when he determines how to best get a dead bull out of a stream before it poisons it.
Junior lures Inman and Veasey to his home in order to entrap and sell them to the Home Guard. He and Teague exhibit more depravity than other characters in the novel. Junior is able to convey a sense of normalcy, however, long enough to make Inman trust him. Soon after the three arrive at Junior’s home, his true character emerges in his harsh treatment of his wife and her sisters. He shows no remorse after turning over Inman and Veasey to the Guard and reveals a sick sense of humor when he forces Inman to marry his wife.
Monroe is devoted to his daughter, Ada, but has no foresight and so leaves her completely unprepared to take care of herself after he dies. His romantic nature prompted him to buy the farm, but he was never interested in the daily running of it. Initially, he feels superior to those in his new community, and he patronizes them, which earns him ridicule. Yet his good nature and dedication to his church eventually win others over. His congregation also comes to admire his stubbornness in refusing to follow tradition.
When Ada first comes to Black Cove, she is, according to Inman, “somewhat thistleish in comportment,” having little patience with and making quick, often harsh judgments of all she meets. Inman tells her that speaking to her is “like grabbing up a chestnut burr, at least thus far.” She had not been satisfied with Charleston society either, finding all of her suitors defective in some way.
Yet, she begins to recognize this quality in herself and is willing to change it. When Inman comes to say goodbye, he tells her a Cherokee story about Cold Mountain that she dismisses, calling it folkloric. She later recognizes that she “had been glib. Or flinty and pinched. None of which she really wished to be,” and “she feared that without some act of atonement,” these qualities “would take hold and harden within her and that one day she would find herself clenched tight as a dogwood bud in January.”
She fits in neither city nor country, until Ruby shows her how to make real connections. Through Ruby’s tutelage, Ada learns to live fully in her world by paying attention to its smallest details. Even though “simply living had never struck Ada as such a tiresome business,” she soon comes to envy Ruby’s “knowledge of how the world runs.” Monroe had insisted that she gain a good...
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