Charles Frazier’s hauntingly beautiful first novel, Cold Mountain, demonstrates once again that the Civil War is a source of inexhaustible fascination for Americans. In a carefully crafted, meticulously authentic tale, Frazier recounts the epic story of W. P. Inman, a Confederate war veteran who tries to make his way home to the western North Carolina mountains in the midst of the social chaos of the Civil War. Set mainly in North Carolina, Cold Mountain recounts Inman’s numerous adventures and close scrapes with death during his three-hundred- mile trek on foot from a war hospital in Raleigh to his home in Cold Mountain, west of Asheville.
The themes of love, war, and homecoming give Frazier’s novel an epic quality reminiscent of Homer’s The Odyssey, but Inman is no favorite of the gods. An ordinary mortal, badly wounded in the battles of Petersburg and Fredericksburg, he struggles with physical hardship and despair during his long trek homeward. His sweetheart, Ada Monroe, must struggle as well to learn how to manage a mountain farm after her father’s death. Their two parallel stories and poignant reunion create an unforgettable story of mythic dimensions.
Frazier’s novel is carefully crafted in language, character, and style, with an almost palpable sense of place. Starting with the use of Cold Mountain (elevation 6,030 feet), a real place, Frazier creates an uncanny sense of time and place through close attention to physical details and a rich, archaic sense of authentic language and dialect, with many regional turns and phrases of speech. Himself a native of the North Carolina mountains, Frazier has a sense of geography and place that is unfailingly accurate, creating a sense of being in the physical world of nineteenth century America. Indeed, the novel evokes an almost an elegiac sense of loss of traditional American culture and regional distinctions. Cold Mountain gains additional authenticity from local history and family stories passed on by Frazier’s great-great-grandfather. The novel also is interlaced with white and Cherokee mountain folklore and traditional folk music motifs, which create a regional sensibility. Frazier acknowledges the influence of Appalachian “Jack Tales” on his narrative style.
Like the stories of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s The Odyssey, Frazier’s stories of Inman and Ada are related in parallel, alternating chapters that gradually converge with Inman’s homecoming at the end of the novel. Theirs are stories of adaptation and survival: Both must use their wits to survive in a harsh, unforgiving world of cultural change. Ada has grown up in the comfortable, sheltered world of antebellum Charleston society, shielded from economic realities by her father’s tobacco, rice, and indigo investments. Her mother died in childbirth, and Ada was raised as an only child. On his doctor’s advice, Monroe, a well-to-do Charleston minister, seeks the higher, drier climate of western North Carolina for his tuberculosis and settles in the Cold Mountain community as a minister. Despite their cultural differences, Monroe and Ada gradually are accepted by the local community. With her father’s sudden death, Ada inherits investments made worthless by the economic ravages of the war years and is left alone to manage a two-hundred-acre mountain farm. Her cultured, indolent lifestyle has not prepared her for the realities of subsistence farming. Ruby Thewes, a poor but resourceful local mountain girl, moves in with Ada and becomes her teacher in all the practical, manual skills and chores of running a farm. Ada gradually changes from a haughty, aloof Charleston-born belle to a rural Appalachian farm mistress. She overcomes her class consciousness and prejudice against the local mountain culture and learns to cope with the rigors of rural self-sufficiency and a barter economy. Ruby gradually teaches Ada the discipline of earning one’s own living, Ada having previously lived rather thoughtlessly on the labor of others and having taken that work for granted.
Inman, too, has become hardened and transformed, nearly to despair, by the savagery and brutality of the Civil War. Feeling that he has had enough of war, he suddenly decides to leave his Raleigh hospital rather than be sent back to the front. He sets out to walk home, wandering through a hostile Piedmont landscape of Home Guards, armed vigilantes and gangs who patrol the roads and highways looking for Confederate deserters, outliers, and escaped Yankee prisoners. Weakened by his wounds and having to forage off the land, Inman repeatedly is ambushed and waylaid, bushwhacked, shot at, tricked, and captured by the local posses. His episodic adventures force him to survive, like Odysseus, by his resourcefulness and wits, but without the protection of the goddess Athene. Nature, too, is his adversary, as Inman is forced to cope...
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