'Cold Mountain' sure to be a Civil War classic

July 6, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
[ "Cold Mountain" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

This is going to be a very popular novel for a long time to come. If you like novels about the Civil War era, if you like love stories, if you like adventure -- then you will love this new book, "Cold Mountain" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24) by Charles Frazier.

It's a first novel by Frazier, who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh with his wife and daughter where they raise horses. Frazier also is a historian with a true storyteller's instincts and a poet's sensibilities. Some of the tales in "Cold Mountain" are based on local history and family stories passed down by the author's great-great-grandfather.

"Cold Mountain" is the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who decides he's had enough of the Civil War after he's seriously wounded outside Petersburg. He recovers, somewhat, in a hospital and decides to go desert. He heads back to his home in Cold Mountain, where he was born and raised. He's returning to his sweetheart, Ada, a preacher's daughter who moved to the mountains from the fine life in Charleston.

The story alternates between Inman and Ada. Inman endures one setback after another as he trudges the long way home. He faces robbers, starvation, wild animals, and a ruthless band of bounty hunters intent on returning deserters.

Ada, too, struggles to survive. When her doting father dies of natural causes, she is left barely able to care for herself, a spoilt young woman who has to learn the hard ways of farming or die. When the competent Ruby moves in with her, Ada learns that she is capable of gardening, canning, butchering and farming.

Frazier does a masterful job of describing the technologies that made the world turn in the 1860s.

Here he describes how Ada, slowly starving to death in her richly appointed home on a farm she cannot run, learns about the barter system:

"Barter was very much on Ada's mind, since she did not understand it and yet found herself suddenly so untethered to the money economy. In the spirit of partnership and confidence, she had shared with Ruby the details of her shattered finances. When she told Ruby of the little money they had to work with, Ruby said, I've never held a money piece bigger than a dollar in my hand. What Ada came to understand was that though she might be greatly concerned at their lack of cash, Ruby's opinion was that they were about as well off without it. Ruby had always functioned at arm's length from the buying of things and viewed money with a great deal of suspicion even in the best of times, especially when she contrasted it in her mind with the solidity of hunting and gathering, planting and harvesting. At present, matters had pretty much borne out Ruby's darkest opinions. Script had gotten so cheapened in its value that it was hard to buy anything with it anyway.

"On their first trip together into town they had been stunned to have to give $15 for a pound of soda, $5 for a paper of triple-ought needles, and $10 for a quire of writing paper. Had they been able to afford it, a bolt of cloth would have cost $50.

"Ruby pointed out that cloth would cost them not a cent if they had sheep and set about shearing, carding, spinning, winding, dyeing and weaving the wool into cloth for dresses and underdrawers. All Ada could think was that every step in the process that Ruby had so casually sketched out would be many days of hard work to come up with a few yards of material coarse as sacking. Money made things so much easier."

It must have taken Frazier a very long time to research and write this beautiful novel since it is so rich in the speech and culture of the time. It resonates with authenticity. His vision of that era is a dark one, however. Don't expect hearts and flowers at the novel's conclusion and you won't be disappointed. Just enjoy this remarkable adventure.

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