The Characters’ Struggle for Survival

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887

When Inman decides to desert the Confederate Army and walk back to Ada and his home on Cold Mountain, he faces serious impediments to his safety, almost as grave as those he encountered on the Civil War battlefield. Physical survival, though, is not his most challenging task. He must also survive the emotional damage wrought by the war, which he fears has made him “so lost in bitterness and anger that [he] could not find [his] way back.” Ada faces her own physical and emotional trials while Inman is gone. Although hers are not as severe as Inman’s, they also ultimately require strength of character as well as a hopeful readiness and openness to the world, qualities that become fully realized during Inman’s and Ada’s bittersweet reunion at the end of their difficult journeys.

As Inman lies in the hospital after experiencing the horrors of the war, he suffers from a profound lack of hope for his future and for that of humanity. He now agrees with his Native American friend Swimmer, who believes in the vulnerability of the spirit, which “could be torn apart and cease” while the body kept living. Inman knows this has happened to him. His wound becomes symbolic of his spirit, damaged and appearing unlikely to heal. Inman feels an overwhelming sense of emptiness, as if his spirit “had been blasted away so that he had become lonesome and estranged from all around him.” This spiritual numbness has become a survival mechanism for him. He has kept his fears of death at bay by setting himself “apart as if dead already, with nothing much left of [himself] but a hut of bones.”

As he sits “brooding and pining for his lost self,” he fixates on the large window in front of him, through which he envisions scenes from home. These scenes become a respite from the harsh reality that surrounds him. He allows himself to replace the present with the past “for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.” This recognition prompts him to make a bold decision.

After imagining “many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there,” Inman decides to make fantasy reality, and he begins his journey away from the war and toward home and Ada. He determines that if he can just get home and build a cabin on Cold Mountain and so isolate himself from the rest of the world, he can survive. “And if Ada would go with him, there might be the hope . . . that in time his despair might be honed off to a point so fine and thin that it would be nearly the same as vanishing.” Swimmer had told him that there are high places where “the dead spirit could be reborn.” Inman thus envisions Cold Mountain as such a place, a “healing realm . . . where all his scattered forces might gather.” During his journey, he reads Bartram’s account of his own travels in the region, which helps sustain him.

The violence he witnesses, however, as he makes his way home compounds his spiritual emptiness. As he observes Veasey’s cruelty toward the young woman he has impregnated, the Home Guard’s slaughtering of innocent men and children, the Federals’ emotional torture of Sara by placing her unwrapped baby on the frozen ground, and Junior’s betrayal of him, Inman develops what David Heddendorf, in his essay on the novel, calls “a self-protective irony that sees him home from the outermost reaches of danger.” Heddendorf claims that this irony, revealed “in the laconic, guarded tones of one accustomed to ambush and betrayal,” helps him detach himself from the misery he observes and experiences. An example of this detachment occurs in Inman’s understated response to Veasey’s declaration, “when I took to preaching I answered a false call.” Inman tells him, “Yes . . . I’d say you’re ill suited for that business.”

This misery also causes him to develop another self-protective measure—a hardness toward others. He regards each person he meets during his journey as “another stone in his passway” and determines “not to be smirched with the mess of other people. A part of him wanted to hide” while “another part yearned to wear the big pistol openly on his hip . . . , letting rage be his guide against anything that ran counter to his will.” Two incidents show him in danger of losing the last remnants of his humanity: his savage beating of the men who attack him in a town he is passing through, and his beating, perhaps to death, of Junior after the man betrays him to the Home Guard.

Inman ultimately, however, does not lose his humanity, due in part to his inability to steel himself against the suffering of others. He feels compelled to save the woman Veasey tries to drown and to help Sara get back her hog, the only means of sustenance for her and her child. He recognizes Sara’s need for comfort and so listens to her tell about her life with her husband. After he kills the men who harassed her and stole her hog, he reveals that even after all he has experienced, he still cannot get used to killing. He tries to rationalize his actions, deciding that on the battlefield, “he had probably killed any number of men more satisfactory in all their attributes than” these. Yet, he cannot quite separate himself from his act, admitting that “this might be a story he would never tell.”

He also experiences acts of kindness on the road that help mend his spirit. Several people offer him food and shelter without accepting payment, such as the slave who feeds him at his own peril and warns him of the dangerous roads to avoid, and the goatwoman, who helps heal his physical and psychic wounds. His movement toward healing is a slow one, however: “he would like to love the world as it was, and he felt a great deal of accomplishment for the occasions when he did, since the other was so easy. Hate took no effort other than to look about.”

At times, the struggle between hope and despair causes him to want to “sprout wings and fly,” to live separate “among the tree limbs and cliff rocks,” high above “the society of people . . . observing the bright light of common day.” The goatwoman becomes a symbol of the kind of solitary life for which Inman thinks he is suited, but after being with her for a time, he realizes the unbearable sadness of such a life. Her kindness, coupled with Sara’s tenderness toward him, strengthens his resolve to continue his journey and get back to Ada.

After her father dies, Ada also must struggle to survive physically and emotionally; however, she has no knowledge about running a farm or about supporting herself. Her loneliness and inability to adapt to her surroundings fill her with a sense of helplessness and despair. At this point, nature appears to echo her emotional state as she looks toward Cold Mountain after her father dies: “The prospect from the reading chair confronted her with all the major shapes and colors of her current position. Through the summer, the landscape’s most frequent mood had been dim and gloomy,” in sharp contrast to her world in Charleston. Yet, Ada soon learns that “survival had such a sharp way of focusing one’s attentions elsewhere,” from her past life to the realities of her present.

Ada recognizes that she will not survive the coming hard winter unless she learns to be self-sufficient, but she has no idea where to start. Fortunately, in much the same way as strangers help Inman, kind and resourceful others help Ada find physical as well as emotional security. The Swangers provide aid when they give Ada food and, later, when they send Ruby to Black Cove.

Ruby is instrumental in teaching Ada how to make the farm operational as well as in helping her foster a deep awareness and comforting connection to the world around her. Before Ruby came, Ada had exhibited an openness to Black Cove, determining that she could find “a satisfactory life of common things” there along with “the promise of a more content and expansive life.” Ruby helps her realize that promise as she teaches her to shed the superficial world of Charleston society for the natural world of the farm.

Ada at first balks at the backbreaking work necessary for survival, but with Ruby’s insistence that the two share duties equally, she slowly gains physical and emotional strength. While she learns the “tiresome business” of “simply living,” she also comes to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings. Ada discovers that one of the benefits of rising early to begin chores, besides the obvious one of having enough time to complete one’s work, is to see a sunrise: she watches as “the light from outside would rise and fill the room. It seemed a thing of such wonder to Ada, who had not witnessed many dawns.” Ruby teaches Ada that “to live fully in a place all your life, you kept aiming smaller and smaller in attention to detail,” appreciating and caring for customs and natural laws. Ada is not fully content, however, until she is reunited with Inman.

When the two finally meet on Cold Mountain, it becomes evident that the emotional damage they both have endured has not been fully healed. At first, Ada does not recognize the “blasted and ravaged” figure before her, “yearning for food, warmth, kindness. . . . his mind scoured and his heart jailed within the bars of his ribs.” Although Ada has learned to be self-sufficient and independent, she acknowledges that her world has been “such an incredibly lonely place.” Their coming together on the mountain, however, provides each finally with the fulfillment for which they have been searching. Ada finds that lying beside Inman is the “only cure” for her loneliness, while Inman, who “had been living like a dead man” finds “life [suddenly] before him, an offering within his reach.” The two spend their last evening together contentedly envisioning their future on the farm at Black Cove.

Ironically, it is Inman’s renewed sense of humanity that ultimately destroys him. After he is able to defend himself against Teague and his men, he faces the one last member of the Home Guard—Birch. When Inman hesitates, reluctant to kill a boy, Birch kills him.

Frazier suggests that Inman, however, has achieved his goal—the restoration of his soul at the end of his journey home. His ability to find his way back physically and emotionally to Ada provides a sense of closure to the novel, which is reinforced by the focus in the final pages on the strong sense of community shared by the rest of the characters. Inman is also there with Ada through their nine-year-old daughter, who becomes their testament to the endurance of the human spirit.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Cold Mountain, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Cross-Racial Bonding and Unity Beyond Race

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7446

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, a book about Civil War Appalachia and the writer’s first novel, has enjoyed a phenomenal popular and critical success since its publication in 1997. A best seller, Cold Mountain won the National Book Award, the Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; in addition, a film version of the novel, directed by Anthony Minghella, is under production.

Its merits widely acclaimed by contemporary reviewers, Cold Mountain has been perceived in many contexts. While James Polk has called it an “American Odyssey,” John C. Inscoe regards Inman, the novel’s co-protagonist, as an “Appalachian Odysseus.” To Malcolm Jones, Cold Mountain is veritably a “page turner that attains the status of literature,” and John B. Breslin, who likewise considers the book’s literary merit, accurately praises it as an “exquisite diptych: in Inman’s story, an unstinting epic of war and its ravages, on and off the battlefield; and in Ada’s, an account of life’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either man or nature’s relentless onslaught.” William R. Trotter, who has written about guerilla warfare in Civil War North Carolina, celebrates Cold Mountain as “great and haunting novel, almost mythic in the depth of its power to evoke people, landscapes, and the mood of the time in which it is set.” And Jane Tompkins, who calls Cold Mountain a “story of a search for love and healing,” sees the book as sharing affinities with the popular Western, its “hero stoic, reticent, and lonely, a lovingly portrayed landscape, disaffection with institutions and dogmas . . . ; and a spirituality expressed through the worship of nature.”

Among academic critics, many of whom often have an aversion to books that achieve popular status, Cold Mountain has received scant attention, but the few academics who have written about Frazier’s novel have recognized its artistic dimensions. Kathryn Stripling Byer perceives the book as exhibiting a “poetic vision,” which, she notes, contributes to “its luminous texture, illuminating its wealth of history, local detail and character,” and, in drawing on Ursula Le Guin, like a “medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” Paul D. Knoke, who briefly examines the novel’s crow symbolism, also explores, in a collaborative essay with Bill McCarron, some of the structural interrelationships provided “through a . . . combination of parallelism (where characters, scenes, and symbols ‘double,’ prefigure, and are reduplicated by other characters, scenes, and symbols) and antithesis (where events and symbols demand dual antithetical interpretation).” And finally Knoke, the critic who has written about Cold Mountain most prolifically, perceptively and meticulously charts the precise time frame and identifies the places in North Carolina through which Inman, Frazier’s physically and spiritually maimed Confederate soldier, journeyed in his effort to return home after deserting the war.

Many readers of Civil War novels authored by Southerners would agree with Mel Gussow that Cold Mountain is a “Civil War novel with a difference,” since many facets of the book show that Frazier elected not to showcase the familiar stereotypes and repeat the scenarios commonly featured in earlier best sellers such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Rather than glorifying the heroism of men fighting in war, Frazier followed a different path. In his words, “when you grow up in the South, you get this concept of the war as this noble, tragic thing, and when I think of my own family’s experience, it doesn’t seem so noble in any direction. To go off and fight for a cause they had not much relation to: that’s the part I see as tragic” (qtd. in Gussow, F1). In describing the key differences between Cold Mountain and books of earlier chroniclers of historical fiction about the Civil War in the South, historian John C. Inscoe points out:

The war depicted here is indeed very different from the war . . . which Robert E. Lee experienced. There are few if any plantations, slaveholders, or slaves on this home front. The many characters who people Frazier’s saga are far removed from those who made up Margaret Mitchell’s or John Jakes’s fictionalized Confederacy. With very few exceptions, these people are poor; leading lives of quiet—and often not so quiet— desperation. For all participants, the war has become one of disillusionment, of resentment, of desolation, and of brutality as they engage in a primal quest for sheer survival. (“Appalachian Odyssey,” p. 333)

In a recent essay “A War Like All Wars,” Tom Wicker, who does not regard Cold Mountain as being exclusively about the Civil War, notes rather that Frazier’s book is a novel of war—“any war in any time—and what it does to men and society.” Nor does Wicker regard Inman as a deserter, seeing him instead as resembling the character in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” who “made a separate peace.” Moreover, Wicker perceptively observes that Frazier’s principal interests, “are with a world nearing the end of a calamitous war, with a society in devastation, and with people who seem mostly to want the battle to be over so that their men can come back and rebuilding can begin.”

Yet there is another important aspect of Cold Mountain that makes it a different variety of Southern Civil War novel: Frazier’s portrayal of race relations. In his portrayal Frazier features cross-racial bonding with some frequency and in doing so reflects a sentiment that similarly echoes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emotional appeal for human rights, racial equality and social harmony, which he expressed in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In contrast to the situation that existed in the years before the Civil War when slavery and a constant fear of the eruption of slave rebellion provided the white Southern writer with the impetus for what Leonard Cassuto describes as the “manufacture of bucolic Southern fantasies . . . , peopled with Sambos because they can easily fit within its parameters,” Frazier, in Cold Mountain, presents a perspective more reflective of the attitudes of the post-Civil Rights era. During this time, the hopes expressed in Dr. King’s widely influential speech were beginning to be realized in American society. While it can be claimed that Frazier’s novel seems directed to a contemporary readership whose views on race relation were more liberal and more humane than those of many readers of the pre-Civil Rights era whose attitudes had been conditioned to accept segregation and racial prejudice, Frazier was not violating historical plausibility in his handling of race. Admittedly, he cautiously avoids populating his book with dehumanizing racial stereotypes or resonating a bigoted bias that many Southerners of the Civil War period would likely have felt toward African Americans. But in choosing to follow what may at first seem an ahistorical course, Frazier featured in Cold Mountain a viewpoint toward race common among Southern Appalachian inhabitants who typically did not own slaves and who did not readily support slavery, an attitude, as will be noted later in this essay, that is consonant with historical plausibility. Moreover, the book, as we will see, celebrates the need for humanity, connection, togetherness, and harmony, values that Inman, the co-protagonist, finds in William Bartram’s Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws (1791) and that he likewise associates with his southwestern North Carolina home, Cold Mountain.

Some of the basic socio-historical facts about Civil War western North Carolina that Frazier seemed to be aware of and that provided the context for influencing his development of the storyline in Cold Mountain were the relatively fewer slave owners and slaves in this region than in other parts of the South, the lack of widespread popular support for North Carolina’s secession from the Union in the state’s mountain regions in 1861, the loss of enthusiasm by mountain residents for the war when realizing it would last much longer than they had anticipated, the shortages of food and male labor, and the threats of Federal military raids.

In attempt to establish a rationale for the cross-racial bonding that pervades and recurs in Cold Mountain, we must take into account the novel’s historical context. Inman, the novel’s co-protagonist and a Confederate deserter, resides in the southwestern North Carolina mountains, a region where there were few slaves, and in his life there prior to his enlistment in the Confederacy, slavery was never a part of his experience. Such an attitude is consistent with Inman’s upbringing and with the principal historical Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive accounts of the pre-Civil War and Civil War eras in the Southern Appalachians. Moreover, as Inman makes clear, in the chapter titled “the doing of it,” in a frank conversation with a goat woman—a hard but kind woman in whom he feels comfortable confiding—neither the perpetuation of the “peculiar institution” nor persons whose way of life depended upon slave labor was ever his motivation for joining the Confederate cause. As the goat woman observes Inman’s wounds, she asks him: “What I want to know is, was it worth it, all that fighting for the big man’s n——?” He responds, “That’s not the way I saw it” and then goes on to tell her that he neither owned slaves nor did he know anyone who did. When the goat woman inquires further, “Then what stirred you up enough for fighting and dying?” Inman candidly explains why he and other North Carolina highlanders fought in the war:

I reckon many of us fought to drive off the invaders. One man I knew had been north to the big cities, and he said it was every feature of such places that we were fighting to prevent. All I know is anyone thinking the Federals are willing to die to set lose slaves has got an overly merciful view of mankind.

It is cynicism such as this that Inman, while still convalescing in the hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, displays in Chapter One as he reminisces about his home region—in particular, the summer when he and Swimmer, a Cherokee friend, were sixteen, wondering now if Swimmer too is fighting against the Federals, a common link that they possibly share as adults. In this, the first instance of cross-racial bonding in Cold Mountain, Inman does not show the condescension and prejudice one might expect to see in a society comprised primarily of a low-class white racial majority in an encounter with a minority other. Instead, in his recollection, Inman exhibits compassion for and understanding of a person of color, actually seeing Swimmer, not as an anachronism, a recycled noble savage figure, but, as McCarron and Knoke point out, as a “spiritual guide.” In recalling his initial meeting with Swimmer and a band of Cherokees from Cove Creek, who had come to Balsam Mountain with a herd of cows to find available grazing land, Inman and a group of white men from Catalooch, whose cows are also grazing these same lands, regard and treat the Native Americans respectfully as equals. In describing the activities that Inman and the Catalooch whites engage in while in the company of Swimmer and his fellow Cherokees, Frazier emphasizes that discrimination is nonexistent, that no color barriers separate the two races to prevent them from interacting:

The two groups camped side by side for two weeks, the younger men playing the ball game [lacrosse] most of the day, gambling heavily on the outcomes. It was a contest with no fixed time of play and few rules so that they just ran about slamming into each other and hacking with the racquets as if with clubs until one team reached a set number of points scored by striking the goalposts with the ball. They’d play most of the day and then spend half the night drinking and telling tales at fireside, eating great heaps of little speckled trout, fried crisp, bones and all.

As McCarron and Knoke insightfully note, the competitors’ “slamming” and “hacking” in the lacrosse game is “never with malicious intent” and “what might have looked like a ‘war’ to an outsider was instead, and paradoxically, a casualty-less vehicle for ‘peace,’ the bonding of a friendship between whites and Indians.” Interestingly, in the gambling activity, which the lacrosse matches has prompted, the Cherokees win the spoils, “the Catalooch party [losing] to the Indians everything they could do without and things they couldn’t—fry pans and dutch ovens, sacks of meal, fishing poles, rifles and pistols.”

When viewed on the basis of the one-to-one relationship that develops between Inman and Swimmer during this brief summer interlude in the “high balds” on Balsam Mountain, the shared home country of both young men, the so-called “bonding of friendship” between a white and a red man is thematically significant. This is especially true if we consider this friendship within the context of Inman’s subsequent experiences (either direct, observed, or heard about) in cross-racial bonding later in the novel. Even though Inman considers some of Swimmer’s folk explanations “dismal,” he comes to hold him in high esteem and to regard his new Cherokee friend as possessing intuition and insight superior to his own. In fact, Swimmer’s keen knowledge of the mysteries of the spiritual world attests to this. Convalescing in a Raleigh military hospital, existing in a physical and spiritual void at the time, Inman remembers a folktale Swimmer had once related to him, a story about a place of refuge and renewal, a “far and inaccessible region,” where human beings could retreat temporarily to escape the foulness of this world, and “in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn.” This “healing realm . . . , a place where all his scattered forces might gather,” but a place Inman has never seen, he comes to associate with Cold Mountain, his home. Though one would be inclined to think that Inman might readily dismiss Swimmer’s story about a “world invisible,” a “better place” as spurious, as a superstitious folk tale of a primitive culture, he accepts his friend’s beliefs about this “healing realm” as authentic, as worthy of consideration. Because of his high regard for Swimmer, Inman subsequently comes to perceive the Cherokee’s beliefs as relevant to his own immediate needs of restoring wholeness to his “lost self,” both to his war-ravaged body and to his disillusioned, “blasted away” spirit, the latter causing him to feel “lonesome and estranged from all around him.” The common link between Swimmer and Inman, then, is one formulated on distinctly human grounds. Inman’s malaise, his wounded body and his traumatized spirit, which contribute significantly to his loneliness, disenchantment, and despair, is a basic one that may be experienced by any human being, regardless of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, or cultural differences. Moreover, Swimmer’s remedy to find a “healing realm,” where one can find a comfort zone by restoring contact with the friendly community of his home, offers a workable anodyne for Inman’s malady.

Inman’s recollection of this instance of cross-racial bonding seems to provide the main impetus for his decision to desert the war and to return home to Cold Mountain. But even more importantly, his reflections on his friendship with Swimmer make Inman a different kind of hero. As Kathryn Stripling Byer explains, “unlike the classic hero, Inman is not at the solitary center of the story, nor would he wish to be. Relationship is what he desires, not heroism” (p. 116, my emphasis). It is relationship, forming human connections outside one’s self, that Inman desperately needs before he can be restored to some semblance of wholeness, of a healthy and balanced life, which, in his mind, he comes to associate with home. In his friendship with Swimmer, Inman discovers the importance of acknowledging otherness by crossing the barriers of racial discrimination. And as a resident of Southern Appalachia and of the yeoman class, Inman is somewhat marginalized himself, a factor that likely enables him to accept and to connect with Swimmer who, as a Native American, has been similarly marginalized. Inman’s experience in cross-racial understanding and friendship with Swimmer may suggest by association a feeling akin to being in a safe place, removed from those things that destroy the body as well as the spirit. In addition, the memory of their bonding, coupled with Swimmer’s tale about the existence of a “better place,” a “healing realm,” offers Inman the same kind the security and consolation that he had formerly associated with home.

In the chapter titled “like any other thing, a gift,” Inman, after he has actually begun his homeward journey, encounters a racially mixed group of gypsies, who also help him to see the kind of resocialization and re-orientation process that will best serve him as he attempts to reintegrate into the society of his home. In initially observing these gypsies, a “jumble of people wearing about every thing of skin there is,” he speculates that they are “outlaws and Ishmaelite as himself. Show folk, outliers, a tribe of Irish gypsy horse traders all thrown in together.” Yet Inman feels a common bond with these multi-racial vagabonds, despised outcasts like himself, who similarly do whatever expediency demands for survival. As Inman notices, these gypsies use deception, transforming old horses so as to disguise their real features and defects, making them to appear young and vibrant. A veritable clinic in applied racial and ethnic equality, they engage in these and other duplicities for the benefit of all the members of their society. Discounting the morality of their actions, Inman, who neither narrow-mindedly condemns the gypsy clan’s fraudulent behavior nor their social practices, bonds with them almost immediately. Moreover, they accept him without condition or suspicion, and “they [take] him in with apparent generosity,” feeding and entertaining him, taking care of his basic needs and otherwise making him feel “at home.” Interestingly, Inman observes and is attracted to a young, beautiful gypsy woman, and “something in the darkness of her hair or the way she moved or the thinness of her fingers reminded him momentarily of Ada.” While apparently inconsequential, this encounter shows that the connection that Inman perceives between Ada, the woman he loves and to whom he wishes to return, and this gypsy woman functions to accentuate for him the principal reason he desires to return home to Cold Mountain.

Yet Inman learns another vital lesson from his interlude with the gypsies—one that reinforces and reverberates his earlier relationship with Swimmer—their acceptance and practice of racial equality. These societal outcasts, an anomaly in their humane ethic and liberal racial attitudes, are comprised, Frazier writes, of a “big, grey-bearded Ethiopian who had a regal bearing” and “a little menagerie of Indians of several makes, a Seminole from Florida, a Creek, a Cherokee from Echota, and a Yemassee woman.” Both the Ethiopian and the Native Americans are showmen. As performers, the Ethiopian was “dressed in purple robes . . . , [and] was portrayed to have been in his youth the king of Africa” and the Indians were drummers, dancers, and chanters. The ritualistic act of eating, which brings Inman and the multi-racial gypsies together, reaffirms their observance of the equality that they advocate: “The Ethiopians and the Indians joined in the meal as if they were all of a color and equals. They took their turns speaking, and permission to talk was neither sought nor given.” In a gesture of unity, indicative of their bonding, these gypsy showmen take a drink from the same bottle and likewise share in recounting stories about their life on the road, the road, as they see it, being a “place apart, a country of its own ruled by no government but natural law, its one characteristic [being] freedom.” In one sense, then, the way of life the gypsies follow represents their own sense of home, a communal domicile predicated on unequivocal acceptance and an egalitarian ethic. For Inman, his experience with the gypsies provides an important lesson in integration with a different culture and the mutual benefits derived from the acceptance of diversity in favor of singularity.

Cross-racial bonding in Cold Mountain also involves an encounter between Ada, the novel’s co-protagonist and the woman Inman loves, and Ruby, her companion in equal living who teaches Ada “self-confidence . . . , compassion, ‘other-centeredness’” (McCarron and Knoke, p. 278), and a group of war refugees from neighboring Tennessee whom they befriend. Their husbands away from home and engaged in the war, the three white women refugees, who between them have half a dozen children in their care and two dutiful slaves to assist them, desire to re-connect with family in South Carolina. Collectively, these refugees, regardless of racial, class, or age differences, share the common plight of victimization and homelessness, a predicament forced upon them by self-serving Federal marauders, who, one of them asserts, “make women and children atone for the deaths of soldiers.” In graphically detailing the atrocities of the Federal troops, one of the women reports: “The Federals rode down on us and robbed even the n—— . . . . They took every bit of food we had been able to raise this year. I even saw one man filling his coat pockets with our lard. Dipping by the handful.” The Federals also steal their jewelry and burn their home. The reunion with their South Carolina relatives will provide, these refugees undoubtedly hope, some semblance of family identity, order, and peaceful accord, in short, the home feeling that the war has despoiled. Yet in the course of their journey through the mountains, when these war-ravaged travelers become lost, Ruby and Ada, moved by compassion, offer all their visitors, including the slaves, food and shelter, providing for them a safe and temporary home and place for renewal. “When supper was ready,” Frazier writes, “they called in the visitors and sat them at the dining-room table. The slaves had the same fare, but ate out under the pear tree.”

While long-standing social custom may account for the slaves eating separately from the white women and children, Frazier does not belabor this point. Still, he is consistent in mentioning it, for, in his initial description of the refugee group, he does casually interject a horrifying possibility, saying that the “pair of kind slaves, who hovered about the women as close as shadows, might just as easily have cut every throat in the family any night as they slept.” Even so, this does not appear to be a prominent fear in the minds of the white women refugees, who, out of the necessity of survival, appear to have cultivated a bond of mutual trust with their slaves and seem comfortable in their company. Moreover, the women’s minds seem focused not on the potential eruption of racial violence or perhaps massacre at the hands of their slaves but rather on reaching their relatives in South Carolina safely. Their intended destination with family will, they hope, provide for them a new home, offering the sense of security and comfort which presumably they had formerly associated with their home in Tennessee before the war displaced them. In raising the notion of the possible insidious intentions of the refugees’ slaves, Frazier may only be offhandedly acknowledging the unsettled feelings of Ada and Ruby, neither of whom is accustomed to seeing strangers of any color in and around Black Cove. Perhaps too, Ada and Ruby may privately feel that their own isolation has been violated by the sudden appearance of outsiders. With the arrival of the refugees, whether Ada and Ruby admit it or not, they have been forced to confront, albeit vicariously, the reality of the disruption of home life and the kinds of losses concomitant with it that can and do occur when the activities of war directly affect people’s lives. While such thoughts may be disturbing, Frazier presents no further indication that any hostile act on the part of these women’s slaves, such as the one he casually mentions, would ever occur.

Despite this one discomfiting conjecture, which, I repeat, never materializes before the refugees depart for South Carolina, nor as far as we know during the reminder of their journey (which Frazier chooses not to develop), he quickly restores the same sense of comfort and trust, features of genuine and healthy relationship, manifested in Ada and Ruby’s earlier hospitality in their first encounter with these homeless travelers:

Ada and Ruby saw the travelers off to bed, and the next morning they cooked nearly all the eggs they had and made a pot of grits and more biscuits. After breakfast, they drew a map of the way to the gap and set them on the next leg of their journey.

This final hospitable act simultaneously foreshadows and parallels the novel’s next instance of cross-racial bonding when a slave befriends Inman, who has miraculously survived the home guard’s mass execution of Confederate deserters.

The scene of Inman’s bonding with the yellow slave, a man of a hospitable and humane disposition, occurs soon after wild boars uproot the wounded Inman, whom the home guard executioners have buried in a shallow grave and have left for dead. Weak and disoriented and trying to decide the best route to follow in continuing his westward journey to Cold Mountain, Inman sees a yellow slave coming down the road toward him on a steer-drawn sled loaded with watermelons. Inman’s encounter with the yellow man begins on a note of surprise and comic relief when the slave, upon first seeing Inman, colloquially exclaims: “They Lord God amighty, . . . You look like a dirt man.” Yet the slave, who quickly perceives Inman’s weakened condition, tosses him a melon, which he ravenously devours. Further, the slave gives Inman a ride on his sled, taking him to the farm of his owner and hiding him in a barn on the premises.

During Inman’s recuperation, this slave and other slaves make Inman “feel at home,” offering him safe refuge and showing him many kindnesses in much the same manner as Ada and Ruby did in assisting the war refugees from Tennessee. They feed him, helping to renew his strength, clean his clothes, provide a secure domicile for him, and otherwise protect him from disclosure. Yet the hospitality of the slaves does not end here. Once Inman’s health is restored and he seems ready to travel again, the yellow slave, cognizant that dangers await Inman, alerts him that Confederate patrols are on the roads, searching for Federals who have escaped from the nearby Salisbury prison. As he warns Inman, “You try to go through there, they’ll sure catch you up, you’re not careful. Probably catch you even if you are.” The slave’s unsolicited and gratuitous words of warning not only attest to his compassionate character but also affirm Inman’s trust in him, prompting Inman to rely exclusively on the slave for accurate information regarding the safest route to follow in resuming his homeward journey. According to the yellow slave’s keen knowledge of the lurking dangers in the vicinity and special advantages that may be of benefit to Inman during his westward trek, he cautiously advises Inman to “cut north. Go toward Wilkes. Taking that heading, there’s Moravians and Quakers all the way that will help. Hit the bottom of the Blue Ridge and then cut south again following the foothills. Or go on into the mountains and follow the ridges back down to your course.” Added to all that he has already done for Inman, the yellow man, again in a demonstration of his admirable humanity and other-directedness, equips Inman with substantial food. In addition, the slave even spends considerable time, as Ada and Ruby had done for the Tennessee refugees, patiently and meticulously drawing a map with useful notations to direct him safely in his travels. This map, “all detailed with little houses and odd-shaped barns and crooked trees with faces in their trunks and limbs like arms and hair [with] a fancy compass . . . in one corner . . . , and notes in a precise script to say who could be trusted and who could not,” serves as a first-hand, reliable rendering of what the yellow slave experientially knows about the region to the west that extends to the edge of the mountains. When Inman, who is noticeably appreciative of the slave’s genuine humanity and assistance, tries to offer him money for his many kind services and discovers that he has none, the yellow man, in keeping with his consistently admirable character, tells Inman: “I might not have took it anyway.” It appears that both Inman and the slave accept and understand each other on a basic human level. In doing so, they recognize the commonality of their human connection and therefore bond unconditionally without apparent preconceived bias or suspicion. In the slave’s eyes, Inman, regardless of his color or affiliation, is a human being in need. In this instance, the more advantaged of the parties— the yellow slave, likely at some past time a victim of dehumanization himself as a member of an oppressed race—freely aids the disadvantaged Confederate fugitive.

While one might be inclined to wonder if the yellow slave represents an updated version of docile and faithful retainers such as those Thomas Nelson Page portrayed in some of the stories of In Ole Virginia (1887), this is not the case. In no way whatsoever does Frazier’s slave resemble Page’s fawning black retainers. Instead, the yellow slave exhibits a personal identity of his own. In Inman, the slave recognizes a fellow outcast (rather than an enemy), and he assists Inman without compromising his personal interests and feelings in the process. Nor does Frazier insinuate that the yellow slave represses resentment that he may feel toward the Confederate deserter. In short, in emphasizing this black man’s gratuitous behavior toward a Southern white man, Frazier shows no interest in resurrecting the “lost cause” ideology, popularized by Page, with its emphasis on African-American stereotypes favoring inferiority, subservience, complacency, and absolute loyalty to the white man. Instead Frazier’s apparent intent was to mold his slave character into a likable human being of genuine and endearing sensitivity.

After all, the yellow slave’s kindnesses to a Confederate deserter, a fugitive from justice, are beyond the call of duty and actually pose a potential danger to his personal security should his master, other slave-holding Confederates in the area, or the home guard find out about them. Moreover, the slave could have shown indifference to Inman’s plight and could have ignored the wounded soldier entirely, leaving him to die on the road where he found him. By being his brother’s keeper, however, the slave becomes an agent in helping Frazier advance the novel’s thematic intent by reawakening the war-conditioned Inman to a valuable life-affirming lesson: the importance of living in harmony with other human beings and helping them when they are need. This same lesson Inman carries out himself when he subsequently elects to assist Sarah, the widow of a Confederate soldier, the mother of an infant child, and a victim of Federal thieves, whom he encounters later in the novel. Importantly, during his brief sojourn with Sarah, Inman gains a clear sense of what a marital relationship actually involves. Adopting the role of Sarah’s surrogate husband, Inman becomes her sympathetic confidant and sounding board (listening to and communicating with her), sleeping companion (though not sexual partner), and protector—all of which anticipate the principal functions that he would be expected to perform in his eventual return home and subsequent marriage to Ada Monroe.

The final instance of cross-racial bonding in Cold Mountain, found in the chapter “exile and brute wandering,” is not a part of either Inman’s or Ada’s direct experience. Instead, it concerns a former relationship between Odell, a young white man and a rich planter’s son from south Georgia, and Lucinda, an octoroon house slave with whom he had fallen in love. Odell tells Inman, who sympathetically listens to his sorrowful story of illicit and thwarted love, that though he was married himself at the time when he fell in love with Lucinda, he “loved her far past the point of lunacy, for as everyone knew, just to have loved her at all was a mark of an unsound mind.” Then when Odell informs his father, Lucinda’s owner, of his love for the octoroon, his father immediately sends her away to the nearby farm of a non-slave-owning white man, who works Lucinda as a field hand. Despite this setback that the separation causes, Odell remains unwavering in his love for the slave woman and even undermines his father’s intentions to keep him and the slave apart. In retaliation, Odell resorts to lies and deception so as to continue to see Lucinda. Consummating his love with her and eventually getting her pregnant strengthen the bond between the two. Yet in accordance with the statutes regarding interracial marriage that would have prohibited a legal union between Odell and an African-American slave, Odell’s father adamantly refuses to sell Lucinda to his son, and in an effort to terminate the relationship between two lovers permanently, he sells Lucinda, apparently sending her to Mississippi. Physically separated from the woman he loves and their child that she may still be carrying, Odell repudiates his family, home, inheritance, and community. And he leaves his home never to return again. Furthermore, publicly dishonored through his attempts to transgress racial boundaries, Odell takes to the open road, becoming an itinerate peddler, whose main objective is to find Lucinda and to reunite with her. This reunion, as he apparently sees it, will alleviate his personal loneliness and sense of homelessness, restoring some semblance of wholeness to his shattered existence. While his efforts to accomplish this goal have proven futile, he remains steadfast in his quest to reinstate a bond with this woman of color, yet a bond that society considers illicit and forbidden. Even so, Frazier leaves us with the impression that Odell will not relinquish his search, that he will continue to look for Lucinda, indefinitely if need be. For Odell it seems that Lucinda has become an unattainable ideal. On the one hand to find and marry her would surely destroy any possibility for him ever to regain his former birthright and status and the good favor of his privileged family; but on the other, a union with Lucinda would initiate for him the possibility of renewing what he once possessed with his estranged family—a viable relationship and its benefits—in short, the values essential to creating the security associated with home. Though at this time, women of mixed racial heritage were victims of prejudice and racism and were often regarded as sexual objects, Lucinda, an octoroon, could have, if she so chose, passed for white; and she and Odell could conceivably have lived together as husband and wife, finding a new home where no one had knowledge of her racial composition.

While it appears that in his search for Lucinda, Odell will persist and as a consequence will continue to remain alienated and homeless, he does experience another opportunity for cross-racial bonding, but of another kind and on another level. This unanticipated bonding experience is precipitated by Odell’s compassion for another human being in need. In his travels, he observes first hand many atrocities against slaves, the most thematically significant being a suffering and helpless slave woman who has been incarcerated in a cage of beanpoles, likely as a punishment for some undisclosed transgression, her exposed flesh and body parts becoming carrion to ravenous buzzards. In a scene somewhat paralleling that of the wounded Inman being assisted by the yellow slave who saves his life, Odell, overcome by pity for this slave woman, wondering perhaps if she might be his beloved Lucinda, desperately but unsuccessfully attempts to rescue her. Though he frees her from the cage and gives her water, Odell, during his indecisiveness about what to do for her next, vacillates; and the slave “vomited blood and died.” Her death, which the well-intentioned Odell could probably not have prevented, even had he acted more quickly and decisively to give her further care, echoes his unsuccessful attempt to cross the color line, to break down the seemingly impenetrable barriers segregating races, and to marry Lucinda. In both cases, Odell’s failure to act in a timely manner, the consequence perhaps of having been raised in a society that considered African- American slaves as chattel, may have in part prohibited him from carrying out his intentions successfully.

Odell’s story of cross-racial love and compassion for the oppressed and afflicted seems to have significant impact on Inman. Odell’s unwavering desire, persistence and determination to reunite with Lucinda, the woman he loves, teaches Inman that the power of love surpasses all fear and danger and seems to provide an impetus for Inman to continue his own journey home to reconnect with Ada Monroe. Moreover, Odell’s unrelenting quest to find Lucinda parallels Inman’s own tireless dedication to returning home to Ada. And their respective quests encourage in both men the practice of other-directed sensitivity. The ultimate significance of the encounter between these two men, however, is that Odell’s attempts to follow the dictates of his heart rather than to conform to the racial politics and social customs of the South’s patriarchal culture seem to rekindle and reinforce in Inman, if only indirectly, his own difficult pursuit of recovering the values of home, humanity, harmony, love, and togetherness—all of which he seems to associate with his return to Cold Mountain.

Inman, of course, does eventually reach Cold Mountain and does reunite with Ada Monroe. And while the time that they spend together in their reunion is relatively short, Inman, as McCarron and Knoke state, does nevertheless “consummate the healing of his wounded spirit in a sexual liaison with Ada which will result in the birth of a daughter who will insure his legacy.” Thus Inman’s death, as McCarron and Knoke further note, is due “not to the meaningless violence of a politically motivated war hundreds of miles away, but [results from his desire] to protect his ‘family’ on the homefront.” Functioning in this role as a man who has been restored to a way of thinking and acting consonant with being at home, of feeling one with his Appalachian culture and achieving a sense of unity with the woman he loves and plans to marry and with whom he will share his future, Inman is killed. He dies simply because he cannot, when the situation demands it, readily and quickly revert to the mindless savagery to which his war experience had previously conditioned him. Now with a renewed and strengthened sensitivity, which the bonding experiences of his journey home have rejuvenated in him, Inman cannot become again the person that he once was. With the sudden appearance of the home guard, even though Inman “recognized himself back in the familiar terrain of violence,” he refrains from reacting instinctively and therefore violently, as he has often done earlier in his journey, hoping, Frazier tells us, “not to have to shoot” a young Confederate home guardsman who challenges him. As a consequence of his sensitivity, Inman lets down his guard, and the youthful guardsman fatally wounds him. It seems understandable that Inman, a new Inman, who has begun to be restored to a sense of comfort and security derived from being on home ground again, appropriately dreams, as he lies dying in Ada’s arms, “a bright dream of a home.” His dream, which has an enticing and solacing serenity about it, suggestive of the charm of pastoral ambiance, conveys a sense of unified cohesion, of all things interfusing into what appears a perfect harmonic whole:

It had coldwater rising spring rising out of rock, black dirt fields, old trees. In his dream the year seemed to be happening all at one time, all the seasons blending together. Apple trees hanging heavy with fruit but yet unaccountably blossoming, ice rimming the spring, okra plants blooming yellow and maroon, maple leaves red as October, corn tops tasseling, a stuffed chair pulled up to the glowing parlor hearth, pumpkins shining in the fields, laurels blooming on the hillsides, ditch banks full of orange jewelweed, white blossoms on dogwood, purple on redbud. Everything coming around at once. And there were white oaks, and a great number of crows, or at least the spirits of crows, dancing and singing in the upper limbs.

The vision that the dying Inman sees in his dream, then, becomes not one of divisiveness, disparity, and meaningless violence but of the reconciliation of opposites, coalescing into what seems a perfect harmonious whole. In describing how this tranquil moment might appear to a passing observer, Frazier clearly conveys that the scene affirms togetherness and exudes tranquility: “A scene of such quiet and peace that the observer on the ridge could avouch to it later in such a way as might lead those of glad temperaments to imagine some conceivable history where long decades of happy union stretched before the two on the ground.”

While Inman’s dream may be interpreted as his discovery of a “heaven on earth” (McCarron and Knoke, p. 383), of the kind he remembered that his Cherokee friend Swimmer once told him about, it also seems analogous to the kind of hope for togetherness, community, understanding, and ultimately racial accord that Dr. Martin Luther King proclaimed in his “I Have a Dream” speech. King closes his speech with a prophetic vision commemorating liberation, solidarity and unification, and equality, which he predicts will occur “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” (my emphasis). Inman’s dream too resonates with images connoting merger, the synthesis of disparate and contradictory elements, such as “all the seasons blending together [and] apple trees hanging heavy with fruit but yet unaccountably blossoming, ice rimming the spring . . . , [with] everything coming around at once.”

Cold Mountain reverberates some of the same ideals of King’s speech by featuring situations involving cross-racial bonding and the values of a peaceful loving home concomitant with it, both of which are predicated on the notions of the acceptance of differences and togetherness, that seem generally analogous to King’s optimistic vision of the coalition of different races, religious denominations, and the like. After all, Inman has been exposed, directly or indirectly, and Ada, to a lesser extent, to situations that afforded them the opportunities to cross barriers, especially racial barriers, and to learn and/or participate first hand in such experiences. As we have seen, in addition to his bonding with the Cherokee Swimmer, Inman also attentively observed and has been affected by the practice of harmonic communal living among a racially diverse gypsy band; the sensitivity and other-directedness of the yellow slave who fed, sheltered, and assisted him to find a safe route home; and finally Odell, whose persistent dedication to finding and to reconnecting with an octoroon slave woman is followed, upon his failure to accomplish that goal, by his discovering another sense of bonding in his willing display of compassion for the “other” in his efforts to help a suffering slave woman. And Ada and her companion, Ruby, who seem to harbor no racial prejudice, bonded with, helped to renew, and otherwise assisted the homeless war refugees and their slaves from Tennessee, whose intent was to connect with relatives in South Carolina. Underlying all these events, one may discover the key to understanding the broader ramifications of Cold Mountain. In the context of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the trope of cross-racial bonding, which occurs with some frequency in Cold Mountain, underscores one of the novel’s central themes: the need for cohesive community, social stability, and togetherness, a need most frequently actuated in the willingness of the central characters and those who guide and assist them to accept, to embrace, and ultimately to emulate behavior that encourages human bonding and that correspondingly promotes the sense of the values conducive to harmonic home life.

Source: Ed Piacentino, “Searching for Home: Cross-Racial Bonding in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter 2001–2002, pp. 97–116.

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Critical Overview