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From Barnes & NobleCharles Frazier's Cold Mountain has quickly established itself as a must-read. Everyone is talking about this eloquent and ambitious first novel; word-of-mouth recommendations and dust jacket blurbs, even serious literary reviews are trembling beneath the weight of the half-forgotten superlatives that have been dusted off and pressed into service for this book. I must admit to redlining the adjectivometer a bit myself while singing its praises. Frazier's astonishing fiction debut is a literary page-turner -- an utterly compelling story driven by rhythmic, resonant prose and convincing historical detail.
Cold Mountain is the story of Inman, a wounded and soul-sick Confederate soldier who, like his literary fellow-traveler Odysseus, has quit the field of battle only to find the way home littered with impediments and prowled by adversaries. Inman's Penelope is Ada, a headstrong belle who has forsaken her place in Charleston society in order to accompany her father -- a tubercular southern gentleman turned missionary -- to a new home in the healthy mountain air of North Carolina. Frazier divides the narrative between Inman's homeward progress and Ada's struggle to make it on her own after her father dies, establishing an underlying tension that is at once subtle and irresistible.
Inman is critically wounded in the fighting outside Petersburg and, after a rough triage, he is "classed among the dying and put on a cot to do so." When his body stubbornly refuses to comply, he is evacuated further south to a hospital where he may succumb at his leisure. But against all odds, Inman's terrible injury insists upon healing itself. During the long months of convalescence he struggles to shed the hated, insulating numbness put on against the carnage he has seen -- Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Petersburg, Fredericksburg -- and probes his psychic wounds for the shrapnel of his former self. He finds instead a refuge in the "topography of home in his head" and the Cherokee folk tales of his childhood friend Swimmer:
"As Inman sat brooding and pining for his lost self, one of Swimmer's creekside stories rushed into his memory with great urgency and attractiveness. Swimmer claimed that above the blue vault of heaven there was a forest inhabited by a celestial race. Men could not go there to stay and live, but in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn.
"Though Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere."
Knowing that he will soon be deemed fit to return to active duty, Inman decides it is time to see if his "better place" still exists. He gathers what provisions he has been able to hoard, readies his fearsome LeMats revolver -- a double-barreled affair capable of firing nine .40 caliber rounds as well as a single load of shot -- slips out of the hospital under the cover of darkness, and begins the long walk home.
Meanwhile, Ada is reeling from her own mortal blow. The death of her father has left her penniless and alone, without the slightest idea of how she will survive. Though "educated beyond the point considered wise for females," she now finds that her vaunted talents -- a deft hand at the piano and a literary turn of mind -- have little value in the wartime barter economy of the rural South. The well-meaning members of her father's former congregation fully expect Ada to sell out and return to Charleston, but the prospect of begging charity or entering into some "mildly disguised parasitic relationship" with distant kin disgusts her. Salvation arrives in the form of Ruby Thewes, a solitary young mountain woman who teaches Ada the basic tenets of self-reliance and a Tolstoyan reverence for physical labor. "Simply living had never struck Ada as such a tiresome business" -- but her exertions give her a pride in her land and an ease with herself that she has never known.
Inman's lowland odyssey is fraught with peril. He travels mostly at night to avoid the Home Guard -- brutal vigilante bands who patrol the highways for runaway slaves and deserting "outliers" -- but encounters a strange assortment of misfits nonetheless: Veasey, the defrocked preacher and would-be "pistoleer" who appoints Inman his personal confessor; Odell, once heir to a Georgia planter, doomed to wander the southland in search of his slave lover; Junior, a noisome and treacherous hillbilly; and a wise old goatwoman who gives him a glimpse of God's mercy.
Time and again Frazier addresses the mysteries of faith and redemption. Though the war has ravaged the countryside and broken its people in body and in spirit, salvation -- admittedly, salvation of a humanist sort -- is always possible for those who dare to ask it. Even Ruby's long-lost father, Stobrod, a wastrel who has spent the majority of his life occupied in either the manufacture or the consumption of moonshine, is born again through his music. As in Goethe's dictum, "der weg ist das ziel," the seeking is in itself the path to finding redemption. Those who make the journey -- physically or spiritually -- ultimately find comfort; those who do not live a hell on earth.
A book as assured and as satisfying as Cold Mountain is a cause for celebration, and a first novel of this caliber (David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars comes to mind) is exceptional indeed. Charles Frazier has made an auspicious debut.