I’m not sure what happened with this one. It was a great one for setting–Frazier gives us some fabulous descriptions of North Carolina. And it’s not just the area around Cold Mountain itself–Inman walks away from the hospital where he is recovering, across much of the state. But I lost interest in the story pretty early on–both Inman’s and Ada’s–and really didn’t regain it.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character or is integral to the story, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are almost finished with North Carolina.

Cold Mountain was very good for our challenge–at least in terms of setting. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of central and western North Carolina are wonderful. There are birds (including one mystical heron imitating Zeus from the Greek story of Leda and the swan):

The brightening sky was busy with resident birds and with traveler birds moving south ahead of the season: various patterns of duck, geese both grey and white, whistling swan, nighthawk, bluebird, jaybird, quail, lark, kingfisher, Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

There are trees, flowers, and insects:

Her mind marked every mantis in a stand of ragweed, the corn borers in the little tents they folded out of milkweed leaves, striped and spotted salamanders with their friendly smiling faces under rocks in the creek. Ruby noted little hairy liverish poisonous-looking plants and fungi growing on the damp bark of dying trees, all the larvae and bugs and worms that live alone inside a case of sticks or grit or leaves. Each life with a story behind it. Every little gesture nature made to suggest a mind marking its life as its own caught Ruby’s interest.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

And there are lots of creeks and mountain paths, sometimes with comparisons between the regions.

The water ran down the hill in a series of white riffles broken now and then by quiet bends and little pools where the land terraced or curved, so that if one were not too careful about the particulars it might be taken for a mountain stream. … But looking on the creek as it made its snaky way down the hill, he saw such notions to be just airy thoughts. The creek’s turnings marked how all that moves must shape itself to the maze of actual landscape, no matter what its preferences might be. When it reached flat ground, the creek gentled and became a watercourse little better than a muddy ditch and displayed no further reference that Inman could find to a mountain stream.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

There are also some wonderful historical bits about subsistence farming, cooking, and living off the land. And there’s lots about depending on others in small communities as well as the isolation inherent in frontier living.

If you’ve read my review of Where the Crawdad’s Sing, you might remember that my husband felt that Owens’ descriptions of the marsh were a little too idyllic–with nary a mention of biting insects! That’s not the case with Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

The sun climbed the sky and turned hot, and all the insect world seemed to find Inman’s bodily fluids fascinating. Striped mosquitoes hummed around his ears and bit his back through his shirt. Ticks dropped from trailside brush and attached themselves to him at hairline and pant waist and grew fat. Gnats sought out the water in his eyes. A horsefly followed him for a while, troubling his neck. It was a big black glob of buzzing matter the size of the end joint to his thumb, and he longed to kill it but could not, no matter how he jerked and beat at himself as it landed to bite out gouts of flesh and blood.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

So, the settings were great, and I can see the appeal of the storylines, but this book just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it had something to do with the Odyssey parallels–I feel as though that’s where my interest waned–which is odd, because I usually enjoy parallels and modernizations of classical literature, as well as a bit of magical realism. I think where it broke down for me here was the exaggeration of hillbilly stereotypes–and perhaps the lack of humor to offset the most distasteful parts. There was quite a bit of humor in Ron Rash’s Serena–much of it gallows humor to be sure–and much more humor in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (As mentioned in my review of Serena, Rash retells the Greek play Medea by Euripides, while O Brother also follows Homer’s Odyssey.)

There were also a few oddities that snapped me out of the reading experience–mainly dated vocabulary that was difficult to parse in the context, like “gudgeon,” or “boomer,” which from the context could have been just about any small to mid-sized woodland animal but seems to have been a squirrel (particularly a red squirrel). Or a comment about a wounded Union soldier who “sat up and said something in an Irish accent so thick the only understandable word was Shit,” which made my inner editor protest that the Irish say, “shite” with a long I, which wouldn’t necessarily be all that understandable.

But there was also the occasional historical fact that seemed so out of place or unlikely that it jarred me until I had to look it up. Did you know that the range of the American bison extended into the North Carolina mountains? Or that there was a flaring of the aurora borealis that was visible as far south as Fredericksburg, Virginia on the night after the battle there? There was also a mention of persimmon trees that threw me, but apparently there is a species that is native to the eastern United States–it’s mentioned in several texts from the colonial period and the name “persimmon” is based on the Algonquin language spoken by Powhatan’s people in the 1600s in Virginia (meaning “dry fruit”).

And I was totally confused when Inman very briefly mentioned an odd uniform: “To Inman they looked like they were wearing the oriental pantaloons of the Zouave regiments, whose soldiers looked so strangely bright and festive scattered dead across a battlefield.” According to this snippet from the Smithsonian Institute website, volunteer Civil War soldiers–on both sides–briefly wore this uniform.

I think it was the brevity and casualness of the inclusion of these historical bits that was jarring–I had no idea what he was talking about and it was not explained at all. That is the only time the uniform is mentioned, and there’s no context at all–even to say Zouave regiments “of the Federals” or alluding to that first year when they were more prevalent or… something. It came across as if they weren’t from the Civil War or North America at all. But it is definitely an interesting tidbit.

Another area where this brevity and casualness kind of fails the reader is with location–especially for Inman. Now, I get that he’s walking home and that there aren’t road signs. But Frazier is a little too vague at times. He indicates that wounded soldiers were sent to hospitals in their home states to recover, and Inman mentions seeing the “capitol dome” several times at the start of his journey. But Raleigh is never mentioned by name, and his participation in battles in Virginia makes the comment about the “capitol” ambiguous.

The only town that’s mentioned (other than those where Civil War battles were fought), is Salisbury, which Inman names when asking directions. It looks like Salisbury is located halfway between Charlotte and High Point–or about halfway between Raleigh and Waynesville (the county seat of Haywood County where Cold Mountain, Serena, and Over the Plain Houses all take place). Waynesville is not mentioned by name, though I assume that’s the town Ada mentions visiting to see Inman before he heads off to war.

Even the location of Cold Mountain itself was a bit of a mystery–it wasn’t until near the end of the book when Ruby told the young soldier that he’d have to go around the base of Cold Mountain in order to get home to Georgia that I realized the mountain was to the south of the farm rather than the north as I’d assumed.

One location that is named is the Cape Fear River, though it’s unclear where the crossing described takes place. My guess, based on the map from the Wikipedia page for the Cape Fear River, would be below where the Deep and Haw Rivers meet to form the Cape Fear River, and above where the Little River joins in (above Fayetteville). I found information about several historical ferries in North Carolina, but the only one still existing on the Cape Fear River is further south and has only been in operation since 1905.

In a departure from most of the books I’ve read related to the Civil War, Frazier seems reluctant to take a position, at least on the question of slavery. He mostly seems to feel that the war was a grievous waste of men’s lives, on both sides, and discusses both the initial enthusiasm that often accompanies the beginning of a war, and the eventual war weariness.

He guessed the promise of [change] was part of what made up the war frenzy in the early days. The powerful draw of new faces, new places, new lives. And new laws whereunder you might kill all you wanted and not be jailed, but rather be decorated. Men talked of war as if they committed it to preserve what they had and what they believed. But Inman now guessed it was boredom with the repetition of the daily rounds that had made them take up weapons. The endless arc of the sun, wheel of seasons. War took a man out of that circle of regular life and made a season of its own, not much dependent on anything else. He had not been immune to its pull. But sooner or later you get awful tired and just plain sick of watching people killing one another for every kind of reason at all, using whatever implements fall to hand.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

For the characters in the book–mostly poor white mountain folk, albeit from a Southern state–Frazier contends that slavery didn’t really have anything to do with their lives. The slave owners were the rich plantation owners of the lowlands, who pulled the common mountain folk into their conflict. Frazier says the rest of the southern folk didn’t care about slavery one way or the other. He doesn’t go so far as to justify it, but the closest he comes to condemning slavery is with the goat-tending woman, who offers this opinion:

What I want to know is, was it worth it, all that fighting for the big man’s nigger?—That’s not the way I saw it.—What’s the other way? she said. I’ve traveled a fair bit in those low counties. Nigger-owning makes the rich man proud and ugly and it makes the poor man mean. It’s a curse laid on the land. We’ve lit a fire and now it’s burning us down. God is going to liberate niggers, and fighting to prevent it is against God.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

But despite the goatherd’s invoking God, Frazier has Inman criticize Lee for an extension of the same idea.

What troubled Inman most, though, was that Lee made it clear he looked on war as an instrument for clarifying God’s obscure will. Lee seemed to think battle—among all acts man might commit—stood outranked in sacredness only by prayer and Bible reading. Inman worried that following such logic would soon lead one to declare the victor of every brawl and dogfight as God’s certified champion.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

At the same time, the main “enemy” in the book is the Home Guard–local men hunting deserters from the Confederate Army. Not that the occasional Federal soldiers who appear are heroic–and Inman makes a comment that, “Anyone thinking the Federals are willing to die to set loose slaves has got an overly merciful view of mankind” (although he never clarifies what he thinks they were fighting for). The two groups of soldiers seem to be equally deplorable in their depredations of the common folk just trying to get by–but the setting within Confederate territory means the Home Guard are more numerous and therefore more of a threat.

Overall, I’d say that Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, was a good addition to our reading list for North Carolina. I still feel that Over the Plain Houses wins my vote for best overall, but this is a good alternative.

I am working on Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy, which starts off in a small Cherokee community much like the abandoned one that Cold Mountain ends in. In Cold Mountain, the characters wonder briefly and somewhat poignantly, about the former inhabitants who were removed, but we don’t see what Glancy’s main narrator, Maritole, sees when she is briefly allowed to return to gather a few items–namely the immediate possession of her cabin and its belongings by white folk. In Cold Mountain, the village was empty and abandoned–which perhaps highlights the pointlessness of the removal, but ignores some of its cruelty.

I’m moving on to Texas next, which made it ironic that this quote and theme popped up several times among the characters of Cold Mountain:

I’ve saved more souls than there are fingers to your hands and toes to your feet. But I’ve foresworn it now and I’m going to the Texes and start fresh.—Many are.—There’s a place in Judges where it talks about a time when there was no rule in Israel and every man just did what was right in his own eyes. I’ve heard the same of the Texes. It’s a land of freedom.—That’s the tale that’s told of it.

Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain

We’ll travel the Trail of Tears first, then move on to Texas.