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Cold Mountain ()

National Book Award Winners (1997)

The basic setup of this much praised surprise bestseller is reminiscent of Tim O'Brien's excellent Vietnam novel, Going After Cacciato, but in this case unleavened by humor.  Inman is a wounded Confederate soldier who decides he's had enough of the war, so he walks home to Cold Mountain to be reunited with his theoretical love, Ada Monroe.  His journey takes him through the war ravaged South, where he meets a variety of characters.  Meanwhile, Ada's father has died and the servants have taken off, leaving this product of gentile Charleston society to tend a farm, a duty for which she is ill-equipped.  But with the help of Ruby, a tough local girl, she adjusts and makes a go of it.

The story is told in language and a style which seems to consciously invoke both Faulkner (see Orrin's review) and Cormac McCarthy (see Orrin's review) and it tells the same type of Southern Gothic tale, that strange admixture of romance and violence.  Some of the descriptions are quite beautiful and the narrative flow is sometimes captivating.  But overall, this is a really hard book to enjoy.  First, the general pace of the story is positively glacial and little happens of any real moment along the way.  Second, the storytelling is so dour and fatalistic, so unrelieved by joy, that it's a relentlessly depressing reading experience.  Third, the characters are pretty wooden; unless you are captivated by their desire for one another, there just isn't much reason to care what happens to them.  Finally, the very premise of the book is so odd as to make us root against Inman and Ada.

I mean think about it, Frazier's basically anti-War message seems to imply that the Civil War was itself simply wrong:

    Ada asked him if he had ever seen the great celebrated warriors.  The allegedly godlike Lee, grim
    Jackson, gaudy Stuart, stolid Longstreet.  Or the lesser lights.  Tragic Pelham, pathetic Pickett.

    Inman had seen them all except Pelham, but he told Ada he had nothing to say about them, neither
    the living ones nor the dead.  Nor did he care to comment upon the Federal leaders, though he had
    seen some from a distance and knew the rest by their acts.  He wished to live a life where little
    interest could be found in one gang of despots launching attacks upon another.  Nor did he want to
    enumerate further the acts he himself had committed, for he wanted someday, in a time when people
    weren't dying so much, to judge himself by another measure.

First of all, to call men like Lee and Longstreet--and by implication, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman--despots, really goes beyond the Pale.  It is possible to take a pacifist position without besmirching the honor of some of the finest men this nation has ever produced.  Second, is he suggesting that we would have been better off if the South had maintained slavery?  Okay maybe he just means that only the South was wrong to fight to keep it.  But the imagery he uses also suggests that Inman is fleeing from the mechanized, industrial future in general, merely epitomized by the Northern war machine:

    During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move his head, and all that kept
    his mind occupied had been watching out the window and picturing the old green places he
    recollected from home. Childhood places. The damp creek bank where Indian pipes grew. The
    corner of a meadow favored by brown-and-black caterpillars in the fall. A hickory limb that
    overhung the lane, and from which he often watched his father driving cows down to the barn at
    dusk.  They would pass underneath him, and then he would close his eyes and listen as the cupping
    sound of their hooves in the dirt grew fainter and fainter until it vanished into the calls of katydids
    and peepers. The window apparently wanted only to take his thoughts back. Which was fine with
    him, 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.

Some may find this retrograde yearning charming, but it has been the source of many of the South's problems.  For roughly a hundred years the region remained trapped in amber, incapable of even acknowledging that the war was over, the blacks free and the industrial age a reality.  Likewise, Ada and her developing relationship with the land convey an essentially pastoral message.  The book is so profoundly nostalgic and backward looking that it inevitably seems to favor the Ante-Bellum South.   It's not merely conservative, it's positively reactionary and aren't we all tired by now of these elegiac Southern novels?

The critics maintain that the action of the novel is the movement of Inman and Ada toward one another and away from loneliness, but heck they never really knew each other terribly well before the War, so they are both in love more with the idea of each other than with the reality.  And Ada's increasing independence is supposed to be the other main development, but all she really does is learn to cook and farm.  Folks have been doing that for thousands of years; it just doesn't seem like much progress to me.  She's really not much different than Scarlett O'Hara in that regard.  In fact, in it's own way, the book just isn't that different from Gone With the Wind--well, except that it takes itself much more seriously and it's much less fun.

[N.B.--One of my goals on this website is to try to identify and develop some of the general themes of Western Literature.  One of the most distinctive plotlines I've discussed is that of the young male escaping from restrictive society and making a dash for freedom ("lighting out for the territories" in Huck Finn's words).  We've seen it in everything from Huckleberry Finn to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cool Hand Luke.  Chuck asked if I thought Cold Mountain fit this pattern because Inman flees from the War.  In fact, his action is virtually the opposite of the broader trend.  He flees from the masculine conflict that will settle issues of freedom (the North fought to free the slaves, the South to be free of Northern dictates) and returns to maternal society, longing for an even further return to the restrictive ante-bellum South.]


Grade: (C)


Charles Frazier Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Charles Frazier
    -REVIEW: of The Trackers by Charles Frazier (Micah Mattix, Washington Free Beacon)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPTS: from Cold Mountain (Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Farnsworth speaks with Charles Frazier, the National Book Award winning author for fiction, about his Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.  (November 20, 1997, NEWSHOUR TRANSCRIPT, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : with Charles Frazier (Book Browse)
    -PROFILE: Mountain man:   About Charles Frazier and "Cold Mountain"  (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -Charles Frazier and the  Books of Cold Mountain:  An Exhibit Welcoming the Author Back to the University of South Carolina  text by Patrick Scott hypertext by Jason A. Pierce (Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: (Random House, Vintage Books)
    -Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier Site (John Roth)
    -Frank K's Cold Mountain Page
    -Robbie Comer's Cold Mountain Page
    -Cold Mountain: Online (Holly Snow)
    -Cold Mountain: The Un-Official Site (Bill D'Aquila and I am a student at Carmel Junior High School)
    -Charles Frazier:  Book Summary, Reviews Author Biography (Book Browse)
    -ARTICLE: Frazier reaches new heights  ( Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY)
    -ARTICLE: 'Cold Mountain' turns its namesake into big tourist draw (GARY HENDERSON,  (Spartanburg, S.C.) HERALD-JOURNAL)
    -BBC Book Club Choice
    -READING PLAN: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier: Not a review, but a suggested plan of action for those about to read the book
    -BOOK CLUB: The Reading Room:   'Cold Mountain' By Charles Frazier  (Greg Changnon, For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
    -ESSAY: The Post Literary Dilemma (David Hoppe, New Art Examiner)
    -REVIEW: COLD MOUNTAIN By Charles Frazier (James Polk, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Jonathan Miles, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Civil War novel is an extraordinary debut (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: (Robert Fleming, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: 'Cold Mountain' frozen in history (Laura M. Fiorilli / CHicago Weekly News)
    -REVIEW: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Teen Ink Review by Jill H., Windham, NH)
    -REVIEW: (Kathie Nuckols, Book Browser)
    -REVIEW: At Last Toward Home | Jane Tompkins | Brightleaf Sept.-Oct. 1997
    -REVIEW: Cold Mountain a haunting tale of Civil War and the search for selfhood (kathryn glover, epeak)
    -REVIEW: Books: 1860 or 1960? The similarities make Cold Mountain a bestselling novel  (F. W. Baeu, World Magazine)
    -REVIEW: (Denver Post Wire Services)
    -REVIEW: Timeless love tale (Jurek Martin, Financial Mail)
    -REVIEW: (Don Shackelford, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW: Confederate soldier abandons conflict for love in spiritual `Cold Mountain'  (CLAY REYNOLDS, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEWS: (Epinions)