, April 30, 2009
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is a unique blend of three classic archetypes of literature. At the heart of the plot is a heroic journey set to the backdrop of the Civil War south. At the same time it is the story of spiritual and emotional growth, or coming of age. Lastly, it is a struggle between noble good and cowardly evil which builds to a climactic ending of the novel. The combination of these three archetypes is a novel that encompasses violence, beauty, war, romance, hate, and compassion, all while keeping the story engaging and the settings vivid.
The novel switches focus back and forth between Inman, a young man who is struggling to return home after being wounded at the battle of Petersburg, and his sweetheart Ada who awaits him on his native Cold Mountain. Frazier’s description of the ravaged lands that Inman travels through, as well as, his panoramic portrayal of Cold Mountain helps the reader picture the many settings of the novel and to comprehend what it would have been like to live during such a turbulent period of American history. Inman describes the landscape around Cold Mountain this way as he nears home,
“Shadows slid down the slopes of the nearest line of ridges, falling into the valley as if draining into a vast pool of dark under the ground….. You could look out across that folded landscape and every sense you had told only that this was all the world there was.”(280)
As opposed to the landscape that Inman traveled through up to this point, these rugged, beautiful, mountains are the closest he has felt to home and peace. Prior to his arrival back in the mountains, Inman had described the places he had traveled through in ways such as “It was a foul region, planned off flat except where there were raw gullies cut deep in the red clay.”(64) The variety of drastically different settings that Frazier presents in the novel help keep the plot vibrant and alive for the reader as they track Inman along his journey.
The novel encompasses three archetypes of literature, the heroic journey, the struggle between good and evil, and coming of age. The journey Inman takes across the south is comparable to Homer’s The Odyssey in its plethora of experiences and obstacles. Inman encounters different people at every turn, some helpful and some not so much. He falls in with a very ungodly preacher for a time, fights off vicious dogs and just as vicious people, and is also helped by many unique characters including gypsies and a solitary old goat herder. Although it may not have taken Inman ten years to return home as it did for Odysseus, Frazier does manage to bring about a Homeric feel to Inman’s journey.
Never along his entire journey, though, does Inman let hardship chip away at his iron will or tendency to do good. In the face of many evils Inman always follows his conscience and defends the side of justice and honor, while many around him do not. This stalwart benevolence goes in opposition to the actions of Inman’s largest threat along his journey, the confederate Home Guard who prowl the landscape searching for deserters like him. These nasty characters represent all that is evil and cowardly in the world, as they haven’t been brave enough to actually fight in the war, but are perfectly willing to terrorize and murder innocent civilians along the countryside. This universal good represented in Inman and the bad seen in the Home Guard finally come head to head in the climax of the book, resulting in one last struggle by Inman to return to the normalcy of civilian life.
Finally, we witness an important change in Ada as she waits for Inman’s return. Originally a proper southern girl from Charleston, Ada begins the book naive and sheltered, and in a very precarious position as the lone owner of a farm which she has no experience in operating. With the friendship of Ruby, an independent young woman from the hills, not only does Ada learn to use her hands and run the farm, but she also begins to appreciate the natural beauty and cycles that are all around her on Cold Mountain. Ada’s growth as a person reflects the change seen in the country at the end of the war. Just as the South is no longer the place Ada remembers from her childhood, she is not the person from that past life.
In Cold Mountain, Frazier comments on solitude, war, and love and more. The novel exemplifies the brutality of war along with the loneliness of prolonged solitude. Ada and Inman’s reunion near the end of the book features deep internal emotions that may at first seem shallow, but are truly the results of years of separation. Frazier manages to convey deep emotions with very little description into what the characters are feeling. Their actions alone carry the emotional ideas he is trying to express. While this is technically historical fiction, a reader need not have any background knowledge of the Civil War in order to understand and enjoy this novel. The setting and tone of the novel also make it very appealing to any Civil War enthusiast as well. It features many accurate portrayals and allusions to this period, one of which is Inman’s trusted LeMat revolver, a unique weapon to the Confederate Army.
The overall appeal of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain derives from the novel’s unique combination of literary archetypes. Not only does this novel include an epic journey and a fight between good and evil, it also includes a tale of emotional growth, all wrapped inside a passionate love story. This book will keep anyone engaged and emotionally attached, and will satisfy both a romantic and a history enthusiast alike. Truly, what more could a reader ask for?