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Book review “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier


This homework deals with the novel “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier.
The novel was first published in 1997 by Grove/Atlantic, but I refer to the paperback edition which was published in 1998 by Hodder and Stoughton.

I got the task to check out how much of the story was true. Now, after reading the novel, I know that Charles Frazier already investigated thoroughly in order to draw a detailed and correct picture of the historical background. Nevertheless, “Cold Moutain” contains many details that I wanted to verify – or they were just interesting to discuss.

It would not make much sense to work these details through one by one; the result would be a mixture of different themes which do not fit together. So I made up several categories, such as “historical details” or “the world view”, which build a kind of analysis.

At the end of my homework I will give my own opinion about the novel.

A short Summary of the Novel

The novel ,,Cold Mountain” tells the story of a young soldier, Inman, who was wounded in the Civil War and makes his journey home to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he loved before the war began.

Ada, who does not know whether Inman is still alive, tries to make a living after her wealthy father died. Not used to hard work and helpless on her own land, Ada is soon accompanied by Ruby, a poor young girl who shows her how to make a living from the land.

Until they are finally together again, Inman and Ada go through hard times. The novel covers a timespan of more than four years, and neither Inman nor Ada knows whether the other one is still alive or has found another partner in the meantime. This last point is the most troubling question for Ada and Inman, because they had not been a “real couple” before the war began.

The World View

At the time of the Civil War, only few people were able to travel to foreign countries, while the vast majority of the population stayed in their hometown area.
The globalization was still in the distant future, and it was hard for the soldiers to leave their home.

For Inman, Cold Mountain is the symbol for “home”, he can see the mountain at the horizon and knows that he must reach it.
A nice example for the worldview at that time is the conversation between Inman and his friend Swimmer (p. 17) who believed Cold Mountain to be the chief mountain of the world. Inman asks how Swimmer knew that to be true, and his answer is: “Do you see a bigger′n?”
It reminds me a bit of Mark Twain′s “Huckleberry Finn” who did not want to believe that there are people who speak other languages than English.

Having seen much pain and dying on the battlefields, Inman no longer believes that there is a heaven where the dead people live on. But Inman still thinks that there must be another world parallel to ours – a better world, because “he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul” (p. 20). “[…] and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.”

The belief that There are more things in heaven and earth […],/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy […](Hamlet, I,5) was very common at that time.
When Ada visits Sally and Esco Swanger, she has a vision as she looks into the well, and Esco talks about several mysterious incidents that are said to have been witnessed in the county. In his belief, they all point to evil times (p. 43) and are connected to the general meanness of the war.

Nevertheless, the people had a very secular understanding of the world. When Monroe, Ada′s father, tries to teach Esco some “true religion”, the result of his efforts are rather sobering – Esco′s comment on the holy trinity is: “Three into one. Like a turkey foot.” (p. 54).

Before Inman gets to know Ada personally, he hears a lot of gossip about her. It is funny to read in what a wrong way people are judged just by their appearance. As we can see on page 73, Ada is thought to be mentally distracted because people watched her write something in her notebook while she was walking around in nature. Inman does not know then that Ada does not write but draw things in order to paint them later on.
This kind of gossip will exist as long as there are people.

In my opinion, many of Ruby′s remarks are close to philosophical statements. Compared to Ada, Ruby is not half as educated, but twice as wise. For example, when Ruby talks about nature (p. 132) and says “You commence by trying to see what likes what”, Ada interprets that as “Observe and understand the workings of affinity in nature.” That is the same meaning, only expressed in a more sophisticated way. Without knowing, Ruby had gained a pantheistic view of the world during her life in nature.

There is one more remark which Ruby made about Stobrod′s music (p. 367). Songs go around from fiddler to fiddler, and thus the songs change as time passes. Ruby says about that: “But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost (…)”. There is much truth in that. In a very practical sense, it reflects Ruby′s feelings about her relationship to her father. Because when she was a child, he never had time for her. Then he got a fiddle and gave more love to his instrument than to his daughter. So for Ruby it must have been shattering. She expresses it when she says that she always imagined the fiddle to fly away with the wind and “the sweet sound it would make breaking to pieces on the river rocks way down below” (p. 410).

Charles Frazier really put great efforts in moulding the novel′s characters. We not only see that in the main characters but also in those who appear only marginally.
There is Blount, for example, a man who Ada meets at a party. They go on the river by boat at night and talk about war at first. But after awhile it becomes clear that Blount is not convinced of the war and that he is afraid of fighting, he even cries before Ada. She does not know how to react because everybody else talks about how heroic the soldiers are and what a great honor it is to fight for the fatherland. When it is said that “Blount was too overwhelmed by fear of the future to think of courting” (p. 137), the scenery becomes even more touching.

Later on, this scene shows effect in Ada′s attitude: Ruby and Ada are invited by Mrs McKennet who praises war and the heroism of the soldiers. She even tells a miraculous story about a soldier who predicted his death in a letter to his girlfriend – and it came out that they died at the same time. Ada then says that in her opinion, war is “brutal and benighted on both sides about equally. Degrading to all”(p. 174). Mrs McKennet is not shocked by this answer, she is rather amused and tells Ada that she is “…the most naive girl I have yet had the pleasure to encounter.”
At this point I said to myself that Mrs McKennet is obviously the more naive woman of the two.

The next interesting passage could be put under my category “Historical Details” as well. It is the passage in which the wounded Inman gets shelter at the old woman′s caravan. Inman′s wound hurts, and the old woman tells him that “Our minds aren′t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss. It′s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us” (p. 267). Inman does not share this opinion.
But as some scientists found out last year, there is indeed a mechanism which helps to forget how bad experienced pain was. That is especially important for women who give birth to children. If they remembered the pain in detail, they would never again become pregnant. So this mechanism is of evolutionary significance.
Unfortunately I do not remember where I read about this research. There is one newspaper article1, however, which explains Inman′s point of view. Scientists in Ohio and Florida found proved that women experience pain differently than men – women can bear more pain, but men cannot handle it.

I do not think that Inman is a man of weakness, though. Many of his deeds deserve respect, for example his being gentle to all the women who help him during his journey. Inman respects everybody′s needs and their point of view. Even the animals′ honor is important to him when he can get no food for a long time and hesitates to kill a bear (p. 340). He even considers to take the little cub home as a pet for Ada (p. 341).
For Inman, it is a deadly sin to eat the bear: “… it still tasted nevertheless like sin. He tried to name which one of the deadly seven might apply, and when he failed he decided to append an eighth, regret.” (P. 343)

The usage of the personal pronouns “he”/”she” in referring to animals is a stylistic indication of this attitude towards other beings.

In the middle of the 19th century, people still lived in harmony with nature. Frazier illustrated this view of the world, which was not yet spoiled by human technology and science, in a vivid way.

Historical Details

Charles Frazier illustrated his novel verly lively with many historical details, and I wanted to find out wether they were correct.

When Ada picks some of her father′s books from his study, there is one about which is said that “the pages were uncut beyond the third chapter” (. 31). I remember that before the industrialization, books were printed in smaller numbers than today because the procedure was much more complicated. But I could not find out anything about pages that were not separated from each other, so I do not know if it was a common “phenomenon”.

The scene of Ada′s visit at the Swagers′ includes one detail of which I can say that it must be wrong. On page 40, Frazier describes Sally′s hair: “…her graying hair was hennaed to the color of the stripe down a mule′s back.” As I found out, the stripe down a mule′s back is not red but black. Today, of course, you can dye your hair black with henna, but that is only because it is a chemical mixture. The natural color of henna is red, and I really doubt that more than a hundred years ago, anyone used chemical additives.2

A rather funny story is behind Ruby′s remark on page 64. She says: “…if I′m to help you here, it′s with both us knowing that everybody empties their own night jar.”
In Germany, we have a museum of night jars3, and there we can get to know the history of their usage. In historical times, night jars were not at all embarrassing. Everybody had one, they were even taken into public. In pubs/restaurants, there stood at least one night jar for everybody′s use. The night jars were emptied out of the window.
The usage began to become embarrassing with the discovery that hygiene is important for health. That was about 200 years ago. So Ada′s reaction – she thinks it to be funny at first and then understands what Ruby means – has to be viewed from the historical perspective. Night jars were nothing you talked about in public, but everybody owned one.

What I remember from a TV show is the meaning of the symbol which Inman draws on the breast of his jacket on page 67. It is an astrological/astronomical symbol which stands for a sun in a galaxy. Our sun is symbolized by only one circle with a dot in its center. Each circle stands for a system which the sun is part of.
The other meanings to this symbol, like “night traveler”, “fugitive”, or “outlier” might be right – I had no possibility of proving it.

I wonder whether the scene on page 117 is realistic. Inman saved Laura from the Preacher and then writes down the story. But it is night, and Inman is in the woods. Is it possible to see enough in a beam of moonlight that falls through the trees to be able to write? I guess I will have to try this in order to find out.

On page 123, Inman watches some artists. One of them is an Ethiopian who plays a “banjolike thing” with “just one string”. I tried to find out what instrument this could be, and I found it in the internet:
GOJE – One string fiddle from northern Ghana. Snakeskin covers a gourd bowl, horsehair suspended on bridge. Played with a bowstring.4

The medical use of yarrow (p. 221) seems to be correct. As it has an antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effect5, it might as well draw out pain.

As a hobby photographer, I was stunned by the numerous types of photographs which are mentioned on page 237. I only knew daguerrotypes, so I took my book on the history of photography6 to get information on the other types. Ambrotype was the advanced procedure after daguerrotype. In this respect, Frazier was right. But as for tin-type, he is definitely wrong, because this process took eight hours of exposition. So it is not suitable for portraits.
Unfortunately I could not find anything about calotype. So I searched the internet7 and found an interesting page on that subject. It explains that calotype was only used between 1844 and 1851, which proves Frazier to be not quite correct.
Frazier wrote that “in sixty-one, any soldier with a dollar and seventy-five cents could have his aspect recorded” as if it all costed the same. But there was a big difference between ambrotype and daguerrotype because the latter was more complicated and thus more expensive.
An explanation for Monroe′s rejecting behavior towards photography is to be found on the internet page. Photography was considered blasphemy at its beginnings, so Monroe could not reconcile it with his religious belief.

I tried in vain to find the native name “Datsunalasgunyi” (p. 241) for Cold Mountain on the web or elsewhere.

A really big mistake can be found on page 285. Frazier describes the tuning on Stobrod′s fiddle as “an exotic tuning with the E string run down about three frets (…)”. Frazier missed the fact that a fiddle does not have any frets at all! It would not even be possible to build one with frets because the intervals of the notes vary too much from string to string.

The kind of music which Stobrod plays is still kept alive by some bands who give performances as Civil War bands. Once again, I searched the internet and found some homepages which offer this music.8 Stobrod′s titles (p. 325) sound like the ones mentioned on that homepage, but I couldn′t find a single matching name. There is even a page where one could download midi files of Civil War music – if the page functioned.

What surprised me was the description of the small house where a woman gives shelter to Inman (p. 290). Frazier says that “The windows were greased paper.” I had never thought about how houses might have looked in the last century, but it is logical that many people could not afford glass windows. The solution to use greased paper seems very clever to me.

On page 331, Ada observes a lunar eclipse. I thought that it might be possible to verify that there was a lunar eclipse in the year 1864, so I looked up several astronomic pages in the www. They do have an index of past eclipses – its first entry is the year 1900.

It was very interesting to do some research on these details. The internet was a great help to me because it would not have been possible to look certain things up in encyclopedia. I came across pages which proved that many persons mentioned in the book were non-fictitious.9
All in all, the novel is credible and very detailed. It is noticeable that Charles Frazier definitely knows what the time around 1860-1870 was like.

The Narrative Style

The most interesting feature in Frazier′s style of writing is the melting together of direct and indirect speech. The direct speech is indicated only by a hyphen. There are no quotation marks or inverted commas, and the narration goes on without even starting a new paragraph.
This leads to the impression of immediacy and fluency. The novel captivates the reader right from the beginning.

The frequent usage of adjectives makes the novel vivid; Frazier describes everything in detail and makes the reader build up in his mind a lively impression of the characters and surroundings.

The whole novel consists of “a framework of alternating narratives”10 (I could not express it better). That gives the reader the possibility of following Ada′s and Inman′s story as their paths get closer to each other.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator who tells the reader which thoughts the characters have. But he stays within the given perspective and does not refer to the parallel string of action. (He does not, for example, give hints of the kind: “While Ada did this, Inman experienced that”…)

In the end of the novel, Charles Frazier uses a leap in time to illustrate what happens to Ada, Inman, and Ruby as the years go by.

My Opinion about the Novel

When I read the blurb on the cover of the novel I was a bit sceptical. It sounded like a kitschy love story of a compulsary separated couple who crave for each other until they are eventually united again.

Now I am glad that I bought my own copy of the novel. The story was highly fascinating, though I first had to get used to Frazier′s unconventional style.
The story is not only interesting. It contains every fascet of the human moods, makes you laugh or cry. It is thrilling and never boring. I really do not exaggerate, the novel definately had this effect on me.

There were some more details in the story which do not quite fit into this homework′s other categories:

In the novel “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje, the protagonist Almásy admires a certain spot on his lover′s body. It is the place above the breastbone where the skin is very soft and framed by two sinews.
I guess Frazier wanted to allude to this novel when he wrote about Inman′s wish to touch Ada′s neck: “Below where her hair was twisted up, two faint cords of muscle ran up under the skin on either side of her white neck to hold her head on. Between them a scoop, a shaded hollow of skin. (…) all he wanted was to press two fingertips against that mystery place.” (P. 74) This innocent, harmless wish is kind of romantic and shows Inman′s good character.

Sometimes I missed a clue about the time in which the narratives take place. I mostly knew it roughly, but there were only few dates given. There is only one passage in which Frazier gives a complete description of time and place, that is when Ada signs one of her drawings: “(…) Blue heron/Forks of the Pigeon/9 October 1864.” (Page 186)

We get to know how much time must have passed indirectly. At the beginning of the novel, Inman leaves the hospital and buys new boots because the old ones were completely worn out. Much later it is told in a retrospective that Inman′s shoes were newly made when Ada met Inman for the last time before the war (p. 239). And I am sure that in those days, shoes were of much better quality than today.

What makes the story so thrilling is the uncertainty of Inman and Ada about what the other one is doing in the meantime. Both of them hopes that the other is still alive and, as we would say it today, single. The fear of the two not to see each other again is present all the time. Inman′s loneliness worsens by such thoughts (p. 379): “He figured Ada might recede before him forever and leave him a lone pilgrim going on and on.”
The reader knows that if it were not for a few hours, they would have met at that place in the snow.
Towards the end, I always waited for Ada and Inman to meet again. When it finally happened, I was surprised by the reactions of the two. But reflecting about it, it becomes clear that the scene was realistic. Of course they had been longing for each other, but it also had been four years of separation. Inman must have looked completely deranged when they met.

I was much confused about the end of the novel. For me it did not become clear whether Inman had died or not. The epilogue does not mention Inman′s name at all, and I still keep wondering why Frazier did that.

This book is so wonderful that I just can not believe in an unhappy end. So I think that Inman survived, just as Stobrod had survived before, and that they all lived happily ever after.

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