Cold Mountain

American Fiction History Reviews Southern


I just read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier for the second time. I'm convinced this book stands very tall amongst all books recently published, and I would eagerly put money down that it will be considered a true literary classic by future generations.

One reason this opinion may seem surprising to some is that Cold Mountain was a #1 bestseller, and contains many elements of "genre fiction": a steamy love story, a picturesque travelogue, a few morose battle scenes from the Civil War. The book was even subjected to the indignity of having Nicole Kidman and Jude Law dress up as its characters in a big Hollywood film (I have not seen this film yet, and I've been warned to just steer clear). There are echoes of Melville and Kerouac, but the book is clearly not the type of thing I usually go wild over. There's nothing postmodern or alternative about it ... and yet the fact remains that you could stack twenty DeLillo and Bukowski novels into a skyscraper and I'd still choose this book over the whole stack.

Okay, I'll admit it. I like this book a lot, and the second reading blew me away even more than the first. I've been accustomed to saying Raymond Carver is the greatest living writer (which is supposed to be funny since Raymond Carver died of cancer in 1988), but the next time somebody asks me this question -- who knows, I may just spit out Charles Frazier's name. Here are the reasons why:

First, his talent for characterization leaves me awestruck. When I write fiction, I struggle to never create boring, stereotypical characters. This can be an uphill battle, but apparently not for Frazier. He simply turns out one vivid, complex portrait after another. A near-feral teenage girl with a prodigal gift for farming; a thoroughly immoral preacher who loses a wrestling match to a catfish; a witchy goat lady; a drunk who builds his own fiddle; a retarded boy who follows the fiddler around. Who are these people and how did they get so real?

Second, the book's simple "country-style" narrative structure conceals some deft touches. I can pinpoint the exact moment when Cold Mountain won me over. It's around page 58, when a preacher (not the incompetent one mentioned above, but the noble and high-minded father of the book's heroine) leaves the big city of Charleston to take up the call in an abandoned parish in the mountains, and has to adjust to a much less sophisticated clientele:

"The houses were dark inside, even on a bright day. Those with shutters kept them pulled to. Those with curtains kept them drawn ... Monroe would rattle on at great length, introducing himself and explaining his view of the church's mission and talking theology and urging attendance at prayer meetings and services. All the while the men would sit in straight chairs looking at the fire. Many of them went unshod and they stuck their feet out before them with no shame whatsoever. For all you could tell by their bearing. They looked at the fire and said not a word and moved not one muscle in their faces as response to anything Monroe said."

We think we know where the author is going with this, but two pages later we are suddenly exposed to the other side of the story, and discover that the mountain folks, far from being quietly resistant to their new preacher, are actively engaged in hilarity at his expense, playing tricks on him and whispering behind his back. They don't like his superior attitude, and they're insulted by his use of the term "mission", since they themselves have contributed to charitable organizations that send Christian missions to Asia and Africa, and do not appreciate being thought of as requiring missionairies themselves.

This is the kind of feat few writers are capable of. Skateboarders call it a "360", and it's no less impressive in a novel taking place in 1864 North Carolina. The preacher and his neighbors eventually come to good terms, and the compassion and warmth the author presents in these scenes point to the moral and political message of the entire book. North Carolina was not highly committed to the Civil War, and the folks in this book are simply victims of the war in every sense. Caught between a slave-holding South and an industrial North, the people of the mountains are simply trampled. Their homes are invaded and overrun, their economies are destroyed, and anarchy rules the land. They can't defend themselves, but they can retain their pride, and more than anything else that's the message this book teaches.

You've probably noticed that I like this book. I should mention again that I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have rented the DVD, so I may post some opinions on it shortly.
15 Responses to "Cold Mountain"

by Knip on

Check out Nicole's hairAs she struggles through her tribulations and presses forward, despite the odds, displaying her remarkable character and devotion...her hair stays perfectly coiffed. :)The movie isn't bad, as far as the epics go. I put it up there with Legends of the Fall. I give it a B-minus.

by stevadore on

Cold Mountain, Frigid MovieLevi, you give a nice editorial on this book, and I'm glad to see it. I read Cold Mountain when it first came out and told everybody I know about it. Last year, I too, read it again for a second time and enjoyed it even more. I believe I grew with the book, if that makes any sense.What I loved about the novel was that the writing itself seemed to me to be right out of 1864, but at the same time it wasn't unreadable at all -- in fact it was quite the opposite. I was hooked on this book right away in the first chapter, describing Inman recuperating from his near lethal wound -- the broken down hospital, the blind man selling peanuts on the front lawn, Inman's internal monologue about going AWOL. I immediately wanted to know what was going to happen.Now, don't even get me started on the movie. I gave it a D. Only because my expectations from having read the book were so high. I still can't get over them changing the Ruby character from black to white -- hence her wayward father, also. (Though, the actor who played her father in the movie was very good. I forgot his name.) It was strictly a move to get plucky Renee Zellweger in there. And I'm really getting tired of plucky Renee Zellweger.I think this book is one of the best books I've ever read, hands down. I hope Frazier decides to write some more -- and soon. I heard it took him close to 10 years to write Cold Mountain.Thanks for posting this Levi. I'm due for a vacation at the beach in North Carolina in September, and now I know what book I'm going to bring with me.

by brooklyn on

I'm glad to hear that, Stevadore -- it validates that my opinion of this book isn't crazy. Like I said, I don't usually go around raving about #1 bestsellers. But, yeah, it seems like we related to the same things in the book. The narrative voice was very convincing. The avoidance of quotation marks seemed to give the dialogue a dry, deadpan authenticity -- I can't exactly figure the mechanics of why these devices are so effective, but they are, and I'm glad they are.I will let you know how I do with the DVD soon ... this may get ugly.

by stevadore on

Yeah, I forgot about the lack of quotation marks. It was very effective.I tried to do that trick in one of my pieces and I couldn't really pull it off for some reason.Now as far as me validating that you're not crazy, well, I don't know if I'd go that far, ha!

by Nasdijj on

The Myths We Live ByThe movie was a sad joke. Having had the unfortunate experience of having lived in North Carolina, and rather too close to Charles Frazier, for five years, my take on North Carolina is a little different from the way most white people read that book and see that place today.I find it hard, very hard, indeed, to believe the romantic mythology that North Carolina was caught between anything and anything.I lived at UNC, Chapel Hill; then Chatham County, land of that "Late Great Unpleasantness" that in North Carolina they refer to as the War Between the States; then in Hendersonville, and as a matter of fact, right next to the cemetery where Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel" stands guard over a boneyard of slaves in common pits and Confederate graves well tended to with flowers and, oh, so pretty, and Mainstreet strewn with memorials to Robert E. Lee. UNC, Chapel Hill, itself, a campus with statue after statue of Confederate generals and Confederate politicians who passed through the Capitol at that glorious rebel time which was Hillsborough where the old Statehouse still stands and hasn't changed one iota and is and was a genteel Southern plantation. In Chatham County, I lived in a cabin in the woods that had been built in the 17th Century as a slave cabin for the tobacco slaves who tended the fields which were still all around us. We was them pooh folks (one of many) who paid their rent to the same family that had owned the slaves. There were notches on the barn that went back god only knows how many years (this proudly pointed out to me by the owners and maybe I could write a nice Better Homes and Gardens or Southern Living elegant piece about it for the local paper and then maybe not). They did not symbolize white people. They symbolized the lynching of slaves at a time called Jim Crow whose legacy has permeated the psyche of North Carolina with its ideology of hate and ignorance. Some of my neighbors were Native Americans who, too, bore the weight and gravity of slavery's historical significance. Our people were enslaved and sold at auction, too. And when the Emancipation Proclimation was issued, guess what, it did not mean Indians.But here's the real gig.Beyond your history and parades.Between the city of Durham and the surrounding rural areas there was a population of African American boys with HIV; many of them live in projects worse than any slave cabin ever built. You can include illegal migrant boys in this mix as their families are now the new slaves who tend to the same tobacco fields.My work with HIV positive boys began here as a support group. We met regularly at my cabin which was a respite for the black young men from Durham who lived in those drug-infested hell-holes referred to as the projects.My neighbors were not happy. Not at all. To see young African-American boys with HIV/AIDS swimming in the creek behind my cabin, canoeing on the lake, and fishing from the same fishing holes my neighbors fished from. It was very tense to put it mildly. This is called racism and fear and it is alive and well and lives proudly in North Carolina. Not yesterday. But yesterday and today.There was a sleepover at our place one night. This gave the black grandmothers who typically were parenting these boys a break. It was NOT easy being in your eighties and raising a black male eleven-year-old with AIDS in the projects. No. It was real hard. These were children.Children.My neighbors (not the Native American ones) came over that night dressed in their sheets and their pointy white hats and they were not the good guys. They burned a huge cross in our front yard and they carried shotguns and it was terrifying.Please don't tell me North Carolina was not enthusiastically involved or was ambivalent about the Civil War because this is a myth that sells books and movies to white people who have conveniently forgotten the vile and violent history of a place where human beings were a commodity and anyone who challenged that notion was hanged by the neck. The romance is not real. North Carolina was a hateful, murderous, lynching, racist, warlike place then, and it is a landscape fundamentally, ideologically, and emotionally unchanged. It remains today a culture that feeds on economic, political, and religious division where the chasm between the haves and the have nots is as deep and wide as the winding Neuse river in a flood of hurricanes. They don't bring you this vision on the news. They don't bring you this vision in your books. They don't bring you this vision in the teenage coming-of-age stories filmed for television in North Carolina where white, white, white Dawson's Creek is put to film like the rhetoric to a lie that never was. They don't bring it to you because reality doesn't sell. I will never forget the smell of that cross burning as a dozen sick boys hid for their lives and cried inside a cabin built for slaves. Charles Frazier made a ton of money. Good for him. But his romantic, commercial fiction is a complete and utter and nauseating mythology. -- Nasdijj

by stevadore on

Well now, that was pretty heavy - and rightly so. But...I don't think your estimation of Frazier's book is fair. He didn't paint NC the way you say he did. He was pretty realistic, in fact portraying many of the white characters as losers and some of the black ones as much better people than the whites. The character of the extremely competent black slave girl, Ruby, who rose above horrible conditions, is one of the most memorable characterizations I've ever read.You can't judge the book based on the movie. Hollywood totally destroyed his literature.

by brooklyn on

Well, I guess this is another "360" on the whole topic ...I hear what you're saying, though it doesn't change what I feel about the book or the author. I really wasn't thinking about North Carolina as any kind of special place, but more as an "every place". In both what I wrote and what you wrote, is there really a difference between North Carolina and the rest of humanity? That would be hard for me to believe. The things you say, well, I believe they're true, but I think they're true all over.

by djrob1972 on

Open MindI was quite stirred by your passionate account of the novel ... I had on numerous visits to the bookstore almost purchased it UNTIL I saw the film which filled me with revilement and vitriolic hatred BUT I know that many, many good novels have been butchered in film so I will keep an open mind and based on your analysis may give it a shot.

by tkg on

Han ShanThis is a really trivial contribution, but...Kerouac dedicated one of his books, I forget which, to Han Shan, one of the old Chinese poets. Han Shan means Cold mountain and when I would see this Cold Mountain book I always thought it somehow had something to do with this poet or was inspired by him in some way.This comment has made me want to read the book.

by Nasdijj on

Dear Friend,Is North Carolina the same as everywhere.Whose "literature" are we talking about.Not mine.The people I come from have a vast history of singing literature and poetry. We have never had a civil war. We have never indulged in slavery. We have never burned crosses in people's yards. We have never hung those among us who disagree with the fundamental notions of the group. Our allegiances were decided by individuals. You rode with who you wanted to ride with. Our chiefs were democratically elected. Yes. North Carolina is different, and so is the notion of what is literature and how it's hatched and where it comes from. When white people go off and say "great literature" I am compelled to ask myself "whose" great literature. The assumption that we are all the same and share the same "great literature" implies a generic cultural playing field that is itself an illusion. The cultural playing field is neither level or generic. I have read this book. Several times. Charles Frazier and I publish in the same North Carolina papers and the same (Norton) anthologies. We just don't see eye-to-eye on what culture and literature is. His writing on the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico (where Frazier got hopelessly lost walking around) is the best thing he ever wrote. Because as a writer and artist he LEFT the slavery and the accouterment of his so-called cultural literature and he had the courage to discover a culture and a literature he did not previously know. COLD MOUNTAIN is a shadow of a book compared to that work and as a novel it is haunted by the ghost of Margaret Mitchell. Both culture and literature are bigger things than the publicists of commercial fiction would have us believe. COLD MOUNTAIN was contrived and would have us believe it is literature but it is hallow, aimed like an arrow for the movies where it died the death it so richly deserved. -- Nasdijj

by shamatha on

I'llhave to pick up this book, based on your recommendation.I think this was an Oprah book too.On a completely unrelated sidenote, I'm going to be in NYC Sunday night to Thursday afternoon. If there is a particular place Lit Kick types hang out, fill me in.

by brooklyn on

Nasdijj -- well, that makes good enough sense to me. My only minor beefs: first, I don't see why you and Charles Frazier can't co-exist in North Carolina, and secondly, despite the fact that Charles Frazier got rich, I really think he's a good guy. He couldn't have written this book if he wasn't. Anyway, I am definitely interested in reading more of your writing and seeing what territories you can take readers to ... I also wanted to invite you to post to our poetry board if you feel like it (prose, poetry, whatever you got) ...

by brooklyn on

But I did want to say, we have no beef on Margaret Mitchell. I read "Gone With The Wind" -- it had everything the movie and twice the complexity. I felt a lot of Margaret Mitchell influence in Frazier's writing, though -- clear references in parts.

by brooklyn on

Not trivial at all ... actually, Frazier quotes that Han Shan poem at the beginning of the book. I think it was the title (and that connotation) that originally made me interested enough to check this book out.

by Emily on

As far as the book goes, I can see that you did read and enjoy it, but as far as some of the story goes, I'm not sure you quite understood it.

My point is, I see your positive points and raise you a reality check.

Reading the book, it is clear that Frazier could be a good writer. I say 'could' because it's obvious that although he has talent, he does need to work on a lot of aspects of his writing. To paraphrase one review I read, Frazier sometimes takes too much pleasure in writing. I agree with this statement - Frazier's book sounds like it was written by a college student, not an almost fifty-year-old man. Its story is highly predictable, as well as being poorly researched in areas where Frazier became overzealous with his story. Supposedly, the story is based (very loosely, in my opinion) off that of his grandfather, who also was a Civil War soldier. Don't get me wrong, it is a decent book, if you're looking for no more depth than a puddle.

Speaking of depth, I have endless things to say about the characters. Most of the characters seem contrived stereotypes that, to reiterate, a high schooler would create. A big-boned black whore who could kill you? Check. An angst-ridden girl who fails at survival and blames it on everyone else? Check. A soldier fighting against the odds with a doomed fate? Check. An immoral preacher? Check. A redeemed sinner? Check. A strong-willed underdog of a woman who proves a vital mentor to the angst-ridden heroine? Check. It has every textbook character that has ever been created for literature. The story and characters are both predictable and flat. The most amazing thing about these characters created by a middle-aged man? They act like they were pulled from high school and sent back in time, being told that these were their roles and this was their back story. They're hardly three-dimensional and the only one with any development (and even that is superficial) is Ada.

As far as your "simple, 'country-style' narrative," I think you paid no attention to the diction presented constantly throughout the book. If this were a "country-style" book, I doubt it would use Daddy's thesaurus to describe everything in sight. Admittedly, Frazier has moments where his writing is, as you put it, "country-style," but throughout most of the book, it is hardly apparent, and in contrast with the surrounding moments seems faked. It is as though he attempted to mimic Twain without having ever experienced the actual thing. However, I will give him credit: he tried. Throughout the book, he tries. Unfortunately, he has no consistency. One paragraph with Inman will contain complex, high-level word choices, and another will introduce regional dialect.

I confess, I've never read Kerouac or Melville, and I know I need to, but what I have heard of them makes me sad to know people associate them with such a mediocre book. Hear me out, though. Reading this book put me back into my freshman year of high school, drama, action, useless plot fillers, and if this book is considered to be among the ranks of Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Kerouac, then I would never force anyone to read that classic.

We may as well put Seuss on the shelf of classic literature, if we're to put Cold Mountain there.