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This is a novel set towards the end of the American Civil War (in the south). It doesn't involve any battles however. It follows two main characters, Ada, who has to learn to survive and run her father's farm after he dies. Inman has deserted from the army following recuperation from injury. He journeys across the south to go home to Ada, his love.
Inman's journey across the American South gives a good picture of America during the civil war period, the poverty, the desparation and the remoteness of many places in the South. Ada's life on the farm is equally fascinating in a different way as she learns how to do the basic tasks required to keep the farm running. She learns how to barter, to kill animals to eat, to plant crops that will grow, and generally how to work the land. Ruby, Ada's friend who helps her run the farm, is a very interesting and amusing character too.
The book is very slow paced, very descriptive, very beautiful. I enjoyed reading every page, soaking up the atmosphere and the details. Too few books are like that for me, but this is one I'd highly recommend.
The book has been turned into a highly successful film starring Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellwegger, Jude Law and a host of other well known actors and actresses. I think the book is better, but the film is very good too and I'm recommend watching the film, but only after you've read the book.
Cold Mountain is the debut novel of American author Charles Frazier and became a huge bestseller and in 2003 it lead to a big budget Anthony Minghella directed Hollywood adaptation starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Rene Zellweger.
The story is about three people who in different ways embark on life defining journeys. Inman a wounded confederate soldier sickened by the violence and madness of the civil war deserts from the military hospital where he is convalescing and decides to walk back home a journey that is filled with danger and revelatory adventures.
Ada is the woman he has left behind although not actually declared their love is implied and steadfast even after Inmans long absence due to the war. Ada a ministers daughter and formerly a socialite in the fashionable Southern city of Charleston now after her fathers death finds herself in the backwater of Cold Mountain in the North Carolina Blue Ridge trying to run a small secluded farm on her own and failing miserably. Her experience leads her to reassess her life and her relationships with people, with the land and with nature.
Ruby is an independent spirit, the total opposite to Ada. She has grown up fending for herself in the country learning how to get the best from the land after her drunken father abandoned her to look after herself. She has little time for niceties and manners, which is something Ada used to set great store by. She becomes Adas saviour teaching her to cope with the farm and allowing her to survive when she agrees to move in and help out.
The first thing to mention about Fraziers impressive debut novel is the richness and eloquence of the writing. There are some beautifully evocative passages that bring to life the rugged countryside destroyed by the consequences of the war. The valley beneath Cold Mountain seems to be in a way magically sheltered from the outside world and at times reality and mysticism clash in the tales that are told by the characters.
Frazier seems to have a gift for projecting the mystical qualities of the landscape to the reader. Descriptions of mist filled mornings and the elegance of the natural world are placed in stark contrast with the realities of the war torn country where lack of food and security have led to lawlessness and violence. Frazier also manages to evoke the past by including meticulous details of everyday life at the time including descriptions of farm practices and the nature of equipment, weapons and tools. The prose is never forced and the descriptive elements are needed to create an understanding of the time period in which the story is set.
Frazier tells the story in an episodic form sometimes relating Inmans journey sometimes relating past events through the characters he meets but also flipping back to Ada and Ruby and slowly filling in their stories through memories and retold events. The nature of Inmans journey can be compared to Homer's Odyssey and indeed in the same way as a war weary soldier Odysseus make the long journey back from the Trojan wars to his loving wife Penelope on the secluded Island of Ithaca, Inman a more modern version of Odysseus is trying to get back to his love Ada in the secluded valley or Cold Mountain. The comparison does not end there, in the Odyssey the hero faces many challenges on his journey home at almost every step being thwarted by the gods. On the way he comes across mythical creatures and characters that both help and hinder his progress. In a similar way Inman is also helped and hindered along his journey home having many small adventures involving some strange individuals. The war ravages country that he crosses has fallen in to near anarchy, people will do anything to survive and at ever step the danger of being caught or betrayed to the infamous Teague and his murderous homeguard riders out to catch deserters is ever-present. Frazier uses this dark landscape to introduce some incredible characters sometimes bordering on magical realism. Inman meets murderous preachers, siren like women, witches and outlaws. He experiences depravity, brutality and violence but also sees how dignity and love can still triumph through adversity.
The parallels between Homers classic tale and Fraziers story also hold true for the Adas journey. She doesnt physically travel of course but she has to develop as a person in order to survive. Just as Odysseus wife Penelope who has been left alone to cope and learn to adapt to her burden so Ada at first totally inept at dealing with the farm or for that matter her true feelings for Inman gradually with Rubys help grows as a person. It seem to me that the way Frazier has structures the story and the colourful often dark nature of the characters and events is meant to evoke the mystical and magical adventures of the classical age.
Intriguingly enough Frazier drew upon real events while writing this book, events that had passed down through his family. Frazier's great-great-uncle W. P. Inman did indeed leave the war and walk home wounded. Many of the other characters like Rubys father Stobrod and the young simpleton Pangle are also based on real people.
Cold Mountain is a thoughtful novel elegant in its writing style but not strictly literary, it also succeeds as a thrilling read. There are plenty of action filled scenes involving shoot-outs and fights and the tension is always maintained as we follow Inmans struggle against fate and the elements on his journey home.
Frazier is telling this story not only on behalf of his family but also on behalf of the many people who found themselves in the centre of a conflict they no part in or understanding of. Frazier tries to highlight an aspect of an America now gone forever, it is the rural America of Whitman and Frost or more recently in the of Woody Guthrie and beat prose of Jack Kerouac. These are ordinary people caught up by events beyond their control and having the courage to take control and resist in any way they can. It is a moving story full of tragedy but yet filled with hope and Frazier really does manage to capture the soul of the county he describes and reflects a sort of reality warts and all that shows us how flawed humanity can be in desperate times.
Cold Mountain is covering an aspect of the civil war that is mostly neglected in the official history books mostly concerned with the great battles and the death count. This book has nothing of the expanse and splendour of other civil war tales such as Gone With the Wind. This is about the conflict behind the lines within the secluded rural native population. It shows us how the war affects the land and the people, how the rule of law is slowly undermined by the inevitable defeat of the southern forces and how anarchy takes over. Cold Mountain is a starkly anti war novel and it is at times brutal in its detail. It is a salutary reminder that war has more victims than just the soldiers on the front.
Cold Mountain has sold well and been highly praised strangely it was first brought out as a luxury paperback in 1998 without much fanfare and sold mainly through word of mouth the hardback copy only came out later at odds with received publishing wisdom.
Cold Mountain in large format paperback (448 pages) published by Sceptre ISBN-10: 0340680598 is available from Amazon for £5.19 + p&p at the time this review was written.