Author: Charles Frazier
Details: (c) Charles Frazier 1997; Pub Hodder and Stoughton 1998; ISBN 0-340-68059-8
Verdict: Cold Mountain is moving and original.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: When we were going through RS' hamper of unwanted books, it was recommended to me.
I suspect that Cold Mountain is intended for an audience who actually know something about the American Civil War. I spent a lot of time being confused about who was on which side, such as muddling up the Federals with the Confederates. I'm also reluctant to trust the historical background I picked up from it, because a novel isn't a good first exposure to a topic. Anyway, it's a pity of war story, and one that is well done, with a decent plot and excellent characterization and not just polemic about how war is Bad. A lot of the stuff it talks about I associate more with 20th century wars, trench warfare and anti-personel mines and so on. It does go into a lot of detail of the physical horrors, but in a respectful rather than a titillating way. The dual point of view helps a long way to balance the account with the way the war affected civillians, the extreme poverty, the social upheaval and the fear and grief of everyone left behind when all the young men were conscripted into a war where they were more or less cannon fodder.
I mostly didn't feel I was reading about late 20th century American characters transplanted into a vaguely period stage set. The values and thought patterns of the characters seem plausible for their time and culture. The plot situation which sets up Ada and Ruby's arc is a little implausible, but if one can accept that their reactions as characters seem believable. There are a couple of awkward things, a masturbation scene which, while respectful, seems to be trying way too hard to make the point that people in the olden days were sexual beings too, who'd a thunk?! But generally, the novel is pleasingly free of obvious anachronisms. The relationship between Inman and Ada is a love story, and a moving one, but it doesn't let Romance bypass the whole cultural expectation of relationships between men and women of a particular class and period.
One thing that is striking is that CM is very honest about attitudes towards race; the characters are not even meaningfully racist, they just entirely fail to realize that black people are human. Most modern writers either endow their heroes with magical modern liberal values, or even if they don't make that error, make a point of how evil and racist everybody was back in the dark ages. This greater than usual realism (at least, based on my impressions from novels that were actually written at the time) made the book rather difficult to read emotionally; the narrative voice isn't standing outside this evil system and presenting a nice comfortable moral judgement on how unenlightened people were, but immersing the reader completely in that mindset. That's a subtly different experience from reading a novel actually written in that era. I dread to think how this novel would read to an American POC though.
I must admit that my heart sank when I saw the author blurb about how Frazier comes from a background of travel writing and teaching creative writing. But the book didn't live down to my bad expectations. Yes, it is lyrical, and there is a fair amount of description of the landscape, but in a good way, and never falling into pomposity or just boring blocks of description interrupting the plot. It's also clear that this is a book about the rural South, written with a real sympathy and standing outside the standard frame through which blue staters (who after all have a much bigger media presence) present that part of the US. I'm not saying it's Steinbeck, but definitely a solid and credible portrait of that society.
The annoying thing about CM is that it presents three different endings. Each of them would work well on its own, the final clinch as True Love conquers adversity, the tragic everybody dies ending, and the living happily ever after in spite of the poverty and hardship ending, would each be fine and emotionally satisfying. But having all three means that they weaken eachother and it just looks as if the author couldn't pick which emotional catharsis to include.