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...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)