Thirteen Moons, Frazier’s long-awaited second novel, resembles Cold Mountain (1997) in its nineteenth century North Carolina setting, its rambling plot, and its thwarted love affair, yet the two novels are also remarkably different.
In the 1820’s, twelve-year-old orphan Will Cooper, a fictionalized version of the historical figure William Holland Thomas, becomes the agent for a trading post in the Cherokee Nation. Young Will becomes a protégé of Bear, a Cherokee chief, “the possessor of the deepest and sharpest mind to which I have ever been exposed.” In contrast to the stoic Bear is another father figure, the flamboyant, mixed-blood Featherstone, who adopts Scottish ways, living like a feudal lord on an elaborate plantation run by slaves. Will first meets the slippery Featherstone when the older man steals Waverley, his beloved horse named in honor of Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. When older, Will reprimands himself for living his life more like Featherstone than Bear.
The most significant person in Will’s life is Claire, the beautiful, nymphlike creature whom he encounters numerous times over the years. They fall into a passionate affair as teenagers. Only much later does Will learn that Claire is not Featherstone’s daughter, as he has assumed, but his wife, and Featherstone challenges him to a duel. Unlike the strongly drawn Ada and Ruby in Cold Mountain, Claire is less a fully realized character than a symbol of Will’s romantic ideals, unrealistic goals, and, finally, wasted life, resembling Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). As if to compensate for a reduced female presence in Thirteen Moons, Frazier creates several vivid love scenes, including a striking sex-in-the-snow episode.
Thirteen Moons also involves Will’s acquisition of most of the land surrounding Bear’s village, his going to Washington to try to protect the Cherokees and their property from the racist policies of President Andrew Jackson, his loss of Claire and most of his Indian friends when Jackson orders Cherokees to be moved to the Indian Territory out west (an event referred to as the Removal), and Will’s use of his legal skills to exempt Bear and his family from this process. To protect Bear, Will is forced to help the army track down his Cherokee friend Charley.
The fatalistic Bear wants to stay even though he is reconciled to change. Featherstone accepts change only up to a point. Removed to the Indian Territory, he constructs a new plantation just like his old one. The purpose of life to is to have a place in the world. Without this place, identity is lost. Will sees himself primarily as an adopted Cherokee. Without their presence, his true essence is missing. Will refuses to see a film about himself: “Who wants every bit of life you’ve ever known boiled down to a few short minutes?” Frazier’s goal is to convey the totality of a life, with joys, disappointments, and deaths mixed in with the minutia of daily life.
Thirteen Moons, in the tradition of American fiction, depicts man’s conflict with nature and the wilderness, displaying the strong influence of the works of writer William Faulkner, especially “The Bear” (1942). Will resents whites’ systematic slaughter of wildlife for commerce: “the woods were as empty as church on Monday morning.” Thirteen Moons also continues the tradition of American fiction of featuring white heroes and their nonwhite traveling companions: the title character and the African American Dirk Peters in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Ishmael and the Pacific islander Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Frazier is self-consciously evoking this tradition much as postmodern writers have done: John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), John Gardner in his delightful novella The King Indian (1974), and especially Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), cited by many reviewers as a major influence on Thirteen Moons. Like Berger’s Jack Crabbe, Will...
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