Thursday, 3 December 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 34 - "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier

In the United States presidential election campaign of 1860, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, made a commitment to move towards the abolition of slavery. As a first step, he proposed legislation to prevent its westward spread into territories newly settled by Americans of European origin. Lincoln won the election but, by the time of his inauguration on the 4th of March, 1861, seven states had declared succession from the Union, and established the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy would subsequently expand to include eleven states, but was never formally recognised by any foreign country.

When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter the following months, the leaders on both sides understood that they were locked in a battle for the soul of America. Federal forces wasted no time in implementing General Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" for a naval blockade of Confederate ports and, whilst Confederate leaders were convinced that the cotton-hungry merchant fleets of Britain and France would do everything in their power to break the blockade, they instead found alternative sources of cotton in Egypt and India.

The "Anaconda Plan," Library of Congress (image is in the Public Domain).

America was behind the times when it came to the abolition of slavery: the United Kingdom had banned the slave trade in 1807, and slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833; France had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, and, although Napoleon Bonaparte had reimposed it, it was abolished for a second time in 1848. Isolated on the international stage, the Southern cause was doomed almost from the outset, but the war continued for four long years.

Together with the Crimean War, which had been fought a decade earlier, the American Civil War was among the first truly mechanised military conflicts, a precursor to the horrors of the First World War, claiming more than 750,000 lives. It settled the future, however, both of the American continent, and of the institution of chattel slavery, paving the way for the Twentieth Century to become "The American Century," just as the Nineteenth Century was "The British Century."

Charles Frazier's novel, Cold Mountain, is only peripherally a book about the American Civil War, just as Tolstoy's War and Peace is only peripherally a book about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia. It takes as its theme the Homeric motif of a warrior making his way home at the end of a conflict. W.P. Inman (a fictionalised version of Frazier's great-great-uncle), a conscript in the Confederate army, has been wounded at the Battle of Petersburg (1864-5). He deserts from a military hospital and makes his way towards his home at the foot of Cold Mountain, where he hopes to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Ada.

A Confederate soldier (image is in the Public Domain).
The real Cold Mountain, now part of the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Photo: Ken Thomas (image is in the Public Domain).

Like Odysseus, Inman meets many characters along the way, a few of them helpful; some of them menacing; many of them ambiguous. Unlike Homer's Odyssey, however, Cold Mountain focusses as much on Ada's psychological journey as it does on Inman's physical one. As faithful as Penelope, Ada, who has had a privileged urban upbringing, struggles to scratch a living from the land following the death of her father.

An American girl, c1850 (image is in the Public Domain).

There is no Telemachus in this story (the only people searching for Inman are the armed thugs of the Confederate Home Guard, led by a sadist named Teague). Instead, in a stroke of genius, Frazier introduces the character of Ruby, a young homeless woman who is sent in Ada's direction by a kindly neighbour. Ruby will on no account consent to being Ada's servant but, in return for a room, she teaches Ada the skills she will need to get by. The story of Inman's journey through the landscape (a landscape beautifully painted for us by Frazier (himself a native of North Carolina) is interwoven throughout the novel with the story of Ada and Ruby's struggle to survive in a world with few men. As the paths of the male and female characters moves towards a convergence, Frazier presents us with a bitter-sweet ending that could scarcely be more different than that of Homer's Odyssey.

"The blind man twisted a square of newspaper up into a cone and then dipped with a riddly spoon into the pot and filled the cone with wet peanuts. He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind. Where to begin, Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg ... But Fredericksburg was a day  particularly lodged in his mind ... Inman looked into one of the houses scattered about the field. A light shone out from an open door at its gable end. An old woman sat inside, her hair in a wild tangle, face stricken. A lit candle stub stood beside her on a table. Corpses on her doorstep. Others inside, dead in the attitude of crawling to shelter. The woman staring crazed past the threshold, past Inman's face, as if she saw nothing. Inman walked through the house and out the back door and saw a man killing a group of badly wounded Federals by striking them in the head with a hammer. The Federals had been arranged in an order, with their heads all pointing one way, and the man moved briskly down the row, making a clear effort to let one strike apiece do. Not angry, just moving from one to one like a man with a job of work to get done. He whistled, almost under his breath, the tune of Cora Ellen ... The blind man had sat wordless throughout Inman's tale. But when Inman had finished, the man said, You need to put that away from you."

The aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg (image is in the Public Domain).

"The agreement Ada and Ruby reached on that first morning was this: Ruby would move to the cove and teach Ada how to run a farm. There would be very little money involved in her pay. They would take most of their meals together, but Ruby did not relish the idea of living with anyone else and decided she would move into the old hunting cabin. After they had eaten their first dinner of chicken and dumplings, Ruby went home and was able to wrap everything worth taking in a quilt. She had gathered the ends, slung it over her shoulder, and headed to Black Cove, never looking back.

The two women spent their first days together making an inventory of the place, listing the things that needed doing and their order of urgency. They walked together about the farm, Ruby looking around a lot, evaluating, talking constantly. The most urgent matter, she said, was to get a late-season garden into the ground. Ada followed along, writing it all down in a notebook that heretofore had received only her bits of poetry, her sentiments on life and the large issues of the day. Now she wrote entries such as these: To be done immediately: Lay out a garden for cool season crops - turnips, onions, cabbage, lettuce, greens. Cabbage seed, do we have any? Soon: patch shingles on barn roof; do we have a maul and froe? Buy clay crocks for preserving tomatoes and beans. Pick herbs and make from them worm boluses for the horse."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Fantastic post! Really insightful.

  2. I was interested to see this as I read this book a fair few years ago; was good to remember it via this excellent article :)