As a lover of historical fiction and costume dramas, I’m constantly wishing someone would ask me what my favorite (aka most fascinating, most culturally interesting) time period is so we could get into a lively discussion about Victorian England versus the High Middle Ages versus early colonial New England or whatever. But alas, people are dull and boring and never ask me this.
If they did, they’d learn I have a thing with the American Civil War. I’m not sure if this is because I read Gone with the Wind at an impressionable age (12) or because I really like the over-the-top fashion madness that is the crinoline hoopskirt, but something about a country divided, the north versus south culture clash, and a four-year, nightmarish war intrigues me. And it’s also incredible to me that the whole Confederate business still has a hold on many Americans — like the people who drive around with Confederate flags on their trucks, even outside the South. What the hell?
So really it was just a matter of time before I got my hands on Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which is set in the rural South during the Civil War. It’s one of my favorite historical fiction novels and one of my favorite novels, period. It does take a while to get through and the pacing is slow, I’ll admit. Think of it like slow-cooked barbecue: takes a long time to make, but the payoff is worth it.
A big part of the novel’s allure is that it doesn’t fall back on some romanticized vision of the South during the Civil War. You know, where everyone’s running off eagerly to fight for the Cause, the slaves are happy with their lot, and then there’s some melodrama about a lost way of life on the plantation and southern belles and mint juleps. (Not that we don’t love mint juleps.) And not that there’s anything wrong, per se, with romanticized depictions of the past — sometimes they can be fun. I still enjoy Gone with the Wind, after all. But that’s mostly because of Scarlett’s bitchiness and Rhett’s roguishness and their chemistry. The novel fails the black characters almost completely; some of the passages about the slaves are cringe-worthy. My mixed feelings about GWTW are clearly evidence of some kind of inner moral turmoil about historical fiction’s tendency to sugarcoat oppression…but that’s another post.
Cold Mountain is about a man, a woman, and the miles between them. The back of the paperback version likens the story to the Odyssey, an accurate comparison. Inman goes off to war, but he grows weary and sick of killing. Or as the book puts it, 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 willingly fled.” So he says “fuck this” to war, deserts, and begins to walk home to Cold Mountain and Ada, the woman he loves. What makes this story so heart-breaking (and so good) is that they barely know each other, really; yet still the horror of war has left him so damaged inside that he needs to get back home to her, to have a chance of being healed — or at least not completely emotionally dead inside. (Pretty strong anti-war sentiment, no?) Meanwhile, Ada’s at home on the farm, and when her father dies, she’s lost and alone, pining away for Inman. Fortunately the poor but plucky and resourceful Ruby comes to her aid and together the two woman manage to survive and even thrive on their own, running the farm. (Pretty strong feminist sentiment, no?) The chapters alternate between Ada/Ruby and Inman, as they inch towards each other, building the tension.
Like I said, this is a slow book. It’s peppered with philosophical asides like this one from Ada:
“Were she to decide fully to live here in Black Cove unto death, she believed she would erect towers on the ridge marking the south and north points of the sun’s annual swing…One had just to mark the points in December and June when the sun wrenched itself from its course and doubled back for another set of seasons…Over time, watching that happen again and again might make the years seem not such an awful linear progress but instead a looping and a return. Keeping track of such a thing would place a person, would be a way of saying, You are here, in this one station, now. It would be an answer to the question, Where am I?”
In other words, this book veers towards the existential. (There’s also chapter called “The Doing of It.”) These digressions and ruminations are why Cold Mountain is so long and slow, but they also give the novel depth and substance.
Frazier really has a talent for beautiful, evocative descriptions, too. I realized this about halfway through page 2:
“By now he had started at the window all through a late summer so hot and wet that the air both day and night felt like breathing through a dishrag, so damp it caused fresh sheets to sour under him and tiny black mushrooms to grow overnight from the limp pages of his book on his bedside table.”
Not a critical description or plot point, but something about the phrase “breathing through a dishrag” struck me. (Maybe because I read this at home in arid California, and I was secretly missing the Midwest humidity of my college years?) I busted out my highlighter and kept it with me as I read, underlining phrases and lines I liked.
I won’t spoil the end if you don’t already know it, but I may or may not have cried, hard. All in all, Cold Mountain is a terribly romantic, emotionally devastating, and ultimately humane novel. I can’t say enough good things about it.