Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 1997

It's about: W.P. Inman is a young Confederate Soldier during the American Civil War. After sustaining a pretty serious wound to the neck and desperate to return home, he leaves the field hospital in the middle of the night and starts the journey to his hometown of Cold Mountain and his love interest, Ada Monroe.

Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, Inman comes into contact with many different kinds of characters along his journey home, each of them representing a different aspect or characteristic of humanity. Inman finds that the war
strips away everything unnecessary and shows humans at their most base - the best and the worst of them.

The story also follows Ada back at (in? that sounds weird, like your in a mountain, although it's the name of the town) Cold Mountain. After her father dies, Ada is left with the farm to herself and absolutely no knowledge of how to run it. Eventually she finds Ruby, a hick girl from the woods who has all kinds of practical knowledge. Ada finds that her education in literature and art hasn't done much to help her actually stay alive during the war, and she comes to depend not only on Ruby's more basic approach to life but also her friendship.

I thought:

Well, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. The story moved very quickly and definitely kept my interest. Like Amanda over at Dead White Guys, I found myself really caring for the characters right from the beginning. (Here's her review on Goodreads.) Frazier does a great job drawing out complex, interesting, lovable characters from the smallest, most telling details. Though the story itself is interesting I would say this book is 100% character-driven, and I love that.

Ada, for example, is a fascinating character - she's well educated, pretty, well-spoken, but still a bit unsure of herself. I loved this quote -

"[Ada] wondered if literature might lose some of its interest when she reached an age or state of mind where her life was set on such a sure course that the things she read might stop seeming so powerfully like alternate directions for her being." (328)

I remember having that thought when I was a teenager. Now it seems naïve, but thoughts like these are what makes Ada so loveable.

Frazier's writing style reminded me a lot of Cormac McCarthy, though not quite as sparse and depressing. Remember when I talked about McCarthy's creepy made-up compound words in my review of Blood Meridian? Yeah, Frazier does that exact same thing (words like "eyewhites," "flowerheads.") I don't see this very often and I like it. I also noted that, perhaps as a nod to our good friend James Joyce, Frazier opted to use the dash to signify dialogue. Considering his background in English Literature, I don't think this was an accident.

Speaking of Frazier's background ... you can tell that this book was written by an Academic. For example, this quote -

"Monroe would have dismissed such beliefs as superstition, folklore. But Ada, increasingly covetous of Ruby's learning in the ways living things inhabited this particular place, chose to view the signs as metaphoric. They were, as Ada saw them, an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline. They provided a ritual of convern for the patterns and tendencies of the material world where it might be seen to intersect with some other world. Ultimately, she decided, the signs were a way of being alert, and under those terms she could honor them."

You can TOTALLY tell that an Academic wrote that, can't you? It sounds way more like an academic article than a young girl's thoughts, right? Come to find out, Charles Frazier has a PhD in English. Surprise, surprise. Ada is very well educated and rather precocious, though I don't think I'll buy that she's thinking such complex thoughts as these. But hey, I'll take it. There are much worse mistakes an author can make. And anyway, I loved Ada's character, so I didn't mind that much.

One last thing - this book had a very deep, mythic quality to it. I've heard a bunch of times that the story is based on the Odyssey - definitely true, in that the narrative is structured in the same way, and the characters that Inman meets in particular are each representative. Frazier's descriptions especially draw this out. I thought that this was pretty cool and unlike a lot of other contemporary American Fiction, at least what I've read of it.

I also think it's interesting to note that Frazier chose to situate his story in the South during the American Civil War. By the 1860s, America was still quite a young country and trying to establish its own identity. By building on a storyline that most readers are familiar with and placing his characters in a time and place that, like I said above, strips away the unnecessary, Frazier seems to be making a statement on the American Identity. Does that make sense? Pretty ambitious, but I think Frazier does an amazing job of it.

Gah, there's so much more I want to say, but this review is already getting too long! Read it and let's talk about it.
Mmm. Jude Law as W. P. Inman. (via)

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Warnings: Graphic war violence, including some very disturburing imagery. Also there is a part where a cute, fuzzy little bear cub is shot and eaten. Sad, so sad.

Favorite excerpts:
"Like the vast bulk of people, the captives would pass from the earth without hardly making any mark more lasting than plowing a furrow. You could bury them and knife their names onto an oak plank and stand it up in the dirt, and not one thing--not their acts of meanness or kindness or cowardice or courage, not their fears or hopes, not the features of their faces--would be remembered even as long as it would take the gouged characters in the plank to weather away. They walked therefore bent, as if bearing the burden of lives lived beyond recollection." (226)

What I'm reading next: Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst