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Review: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
Grove, 2017 (reissue). 449 pp. $17

In September 1864, wounded Confederate soldier W. P. Inman leaves the rural Virginia hospital where he’s been convalescing and lights out for home, without furlough papers. It’s a risky move. Irregulars comb the countryside for deserters, and if they catch him, the only question is whether they’ll kill him immediately or bring him to the nearest town for execution. But he hates the war, which he feels never had purpose, aside from protecting wealthy slaveholders’ property, and combat has scarred his psyche so badly, he’s ready to take his chances.

He hopes to meet up with Ada Monroe, a woman back in Cold Mountain, western North Carolina, whom he hasn’t seen since the war began. They’ve exchanged letters, but Inman doesn’t know whether they ever had an “understanding,” or, if they did, whether Ada will care for him now, in his emotionally damaged state.

But Ada has her own troubles—and a journey to make. Her father, a preacher, has just died, leaving her with a farm gone to seed because of wartime labor shortages and no skills or resources to maintain the place. The late Monroe encouraged—nay, required—his daughter to cultivate her mind and sense of gentility, so that she must never lift a finger in anything remotely resembling physical labor.

Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina (courtesy James St. John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/47445767@N05/51363496155/, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As a consequence, Ada’s extremely literate, plays the piano (stolidly), and can draw, but she hasn’t a clue about raising crops or animals, or about the natural environment on which her existence would depend if she operated the farm. However, she has only one alternative: returning to Charleston, where she was born, throwing herself on the mercy of relatives she never liked, and settling for a husband who’d probably not appreciate her independent mind.

Cold Mountain bears a slight resemblance to the Odyssey, in that Inman, as Odysseus, must endure myriad misadventures and combats to return to Penelope, whom he dares not presume is waiting for him. His narrative is therefore episodic, full of “no—and furthermore” and derring-do. Like Odysseus, he’s clever and needs to be; unlike him, though, he’s not malign. Not ever. Rather, he assists people in distress as he meets them and never surrenders to temptation. He’s more of a knight-errant than an adventurer, and maybe too good to be true.

Meanwhile, Ada has received a tremendous stroke of luck in the form of Ruby Thewes, who shows up because a friend has said Ada needs help. Ruby has no refinement, book learning, or soft feelings but knows all there is to know about the soil, the barnyard, and how to read the seasons. I like that Ada’s tutelage comes hard and that her journey is both internal and external, unlike Inman’s, who seems fully formed. Rather, Ada must shed her old life, and this minute wouldn’t be too soon. I also like how she reads to Ruby, her turn to pass on what she knows, and how they disagree as to what happiness is, or whether it’s even worth bothering about.

Her story moves me more than Inman’s, by far. Ada grows as a character, whereas he doesn’t, and whatever changes he’s gone through, you see them hazily in aftermath rather than in transition. During his odyssey, one physical conflict is much like another, and none stand out for me, either in themselves or what he learns from them. Conversely, her narrative feels more cohesive, and she transforms before your eyes—not without a struggle, which adds to her portrayal. Her obstacles, though daunting, seldom feel ridiculously insurmountable, so she seems more human, less larger than life.

Maybe the greatest pleasure of Cold Mountain is the prose, which has been justly celebrated, and which conveys the characters’ physical and emotional realms with vividness and precision:

In his mind, Inman likened the swirling patterns of vulture flight to the coffee grounds seeking pattern in his cup. Anyone could be oracle for the random ways things fall against each other. It was simple enough to tell fortunes if a man dedicated himself to the idea that the future will inevitably be worse than the past and that time is a path leading nowhere but a place of deep and persistent threat.

I admire Frazier’s refusal to sugarcoat human nature, and his depiction of lawless, bloodthirsty, and greedy behavior is both real and appalling. If ever a novel did justice to the brutality Americans visited upon each other during those years, this one does. This is a vision of the Civil War that has rarely, if ever, appeared in fictional form.

Nevertheless, the narrative compromises that vision with a romantic underlay, and Cold Mountain is less satisfying for it. As with Varina, Frazier appears to argue that nobody really wanted secession or believed in the war except for a slim majority who held wealth and power. Somehow, I don’t think that’s how the Civil War lasted that long. But in any case, Frazier’s perspective whitewashes his characters while trivializing the history.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.