This novel chronicles the long journey home of a Civil War soldier, Inman, to Cold Mountain in North Carolina. The story begins in a military hospital, and Inman's neck wound, a long difficult-to-heal horizontal slice received in battle, is drawing flies. Inman is a moral man, and the brutality and killing he has witnessed on the battlefield lead him to leave the hospital AWOL and journey secretively, by foot, back to Ada, his love. The trip is perilous; Inman is subject not only to the difficulties of near starvation and a poorly healing wound, but also the cruelties of people he meets along the way. However, every so often, he is also succored by compassionate people, such as the goat woman who provides the cure for his neck wound, if not for the wounds inside. Intertwined with Inman's story is Ada's: her preacher father dies of tuberculosis, leaving her utterly unable to provide for her own basic needs on the farm.
Fortunately, a self-reliant young woman, Ruby, joins Ada on the farm, and helps transform both the farm and Ada. The book details the ways of nourishment: physical (precise descriptions of food, its paucity and preparation) and nonphysical (themes of love, generosity, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual questing underpin the book). Cold Mountain itself provides both types of nourishment by offering hope, goals, shelter, food and a place where love and forgiveness are possible despite the savagery of man. Commentary Frazier's writing is lyric, precise, and a joy to read.
A tongue is "grey as the foot of a goose" (p. 56) and the center of an unused lane grows "a tall ruff of asters and foxtails." (p. 27) Cruelty, pain, and deprivation are, however, ever-present realities in the book: many wounds, killings, and deaths are described. These descriptions are not gratuitous, but rather elicit continued reflection on the human condition. For instance: "In his [Inman's experience, great wounds sometimes healed, small sometimes festered. Any wound might heal on the skin side but keep burrowing inward to a man's core until it ate him up.
The why of it, like much in life, offered little access to logic." (p. 327) One wonders how the war-torn country could ever heal its wounds, its horizontal slice That one word is virtually everything you need to know about this Civil War story lovingly crafted by first-time novelist, Charles Frazier. The book opens with a Confederate soldier waking to the sound and touch of flies in the hospital ward where he has long lain gravely injured. Confined to what he sees framed in a nearby window, Inman's thoughts carry him back to battlefields where "the Federals crowded up behind them in such numbers that they looked like the long blue shadows of houses at sunrise." Inman seeks solace in memories of home, where "mornings on the high bald were crisp, with fog lying in the valleys so that the peaks rose from it disconnected like steep blue islands scattered across a pale sea." Fundamentally changed by the harm he's seen men perpetuate on their brothers, Inman soon deserts, setting out on foot toward Cold Mountain and Ada, the woman he loves. Beginning with the summer of 1864, COLD MOUNTAIN chronicles approximately six months in the lives of Inman and Ada. Their personal journeys - Inman's physical one through the southern Blue Ridge Mountains and Ada's personal one from helplessness to self-sufficiency - run parallel to each other.
Frazier plays out their travails in alternating chapters of such even and dispassionate prose that the most ordinary description hits all the harder for its matter-of-fact tone: .".. in the early pale light his first true vision was of some foul variety of brown flatland viper sliding flabby and turd like from the roadway into a thick bed of chickweed." Battling hunger, fatigue, nature, and a Home Guard exacting swift justice to every unlucky "outlier" captured, Inman plods westward toward Cold Mountain. Under skies "the color of hammered pewter" and along rivers that bring to mind trout "bright and firm as shavings from a bar of silver," Inman encounters a self-styled preacher who'd kill to hide the lesser sin of lust; slatternly sisters who'd rather rut than eat; a widow, a baby, and a hog left to the caprice of renegade Federals; and a goat woman dispensing cheese and healing. Every delay along the way gives us insight into what the Civil War truly wrought, but for Inman "who hated most moving retrograde to his desires... every step east he trod was bitter as backsliding." Meanwhile, left alone and penniless by her father's death, Ada learns how to manage the farm she's held at arm's length. A young woman, Ruby, comes to work the land with Ada, saying, ."..
if I'm to help you here, it's with both us knowing that everybody empties their own night jar." Ruby forces Ada off the porch rocker and into the fields. Through days of weeding, planting, and butchering, the book-wise Ada becomes "increasingly covetous of Ruby's learning in the ways living things inhabited this particular place." Different in so many ways, Ruby and Ada slowly forge a singular friendship that's a delight to witness. All this is unknown and far from Inman as he walks on. While Ada and Ruby toil for the present and plan hopefully for the future, the dispirited Inman is more inclined to reflect: "He had long since decided there was little usefulness in speculating much on what a day will bring. It led a person to the equal errors of being either dreadful or hopeful." And this is what Frazier ultimately doles out - equal measures of dread and hope. COLD MOUNTAIN is a unique and utterly haunting vision of the plain bloody unfairness of war and its aftermath, and how individuals are moved to travel through the darkness of retribution and regret to grasp for the light of redemption shining on the other side.
Charles Frazier's debut novel, Cold Mountain, is the story of a very long walk. In the waning months of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate veteran named Inman gets up from his hospital bed and begins the long journey back to his home in the remote hills of North Carolina. Along the way he meets rogues and outlaws, Good Samaritans and vigilantes, people who help and others who hinder, but through it all Inman's aim is true: his one goal is to return to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he left behind. The object of his affection, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Raised in the ratified air of Charleston society, Ada was brought to the backwoods of Cold Mountain by her father, a preacher who came to the country for his health.
Even after her father's death, Ada remains there, partly to wait for Inman, but partly because she senses her destiny lies not in the city but in the North Carolina Blue Ridge. Cold Mountain is the story of two parallel journeys: Inman's physical trek across the American landscape and Ada's internal odyssey toward an understanding of herself. What makes Frazier's novel so satisfying is the depth of detail surrounding both journeys. Frazier based this story on family history, and in the characters of Inman and Ada he has paid a rich compliment to their historical counterparts.
Cold Mountain is, quite simply, a wonderful book.