D.G. MARTIN: A Worthy Successor to 'Cold Mountain'
Can Charles Frazier's just-published second novel, "Thirteen Moons," meet the high expectations raised by the success of his first, "Cold Mountain"?
The bar that Frazier set for himself is pretty high. About "Cold Mountain," one reviewer (noted North Carolina writer, Sally Buckner) said, "It isn't merely the best novel I've read in years. It is (let me dodge the blows from Thomas Wolfe devotees) the best novel ever written in North Carolina."
How could any author write a second book that could live up to this kind of praise?
Well, Frazier, who has worked almost 10 years on this second book, has made every effort to make it just as memorable as "Cold Mountain."
Readers of "Thirteen Moons" will not all come to the same conclusion. But if we hear from some who do not like it as well as they did "Cold Mountain" and some who do not like it at all, we must remember that not every reader liked "Cold Mountain." Some thought it was too slow getting into the story. Some thought the long descriptions of the natural surroundings and mountain life got in the way of the action. Some had other criticisms.
The reactions of this minority did not keep "Cold Mountain" from being a gigantic success, critically and economically. For millions, including this reader, it provided a memorable reading experience.
One thing is for sure. Those readers who were taken with Frazier's language and his descriptive powers in "Cold Mountain" will be taken again by "Thirteen Moons." The way he takes us to the mountains and their beauty with his words in "Thirteen Moons" is, if that is possible, even better than the he did with "Cold Mountain's" wonderful, rich, luscious passages.
The story lines in the two books are, however, much different. "Cold Mountain" is framed by the travel of a Confederate deserter from the battlefields and hospitals to his home in the mountains and a meeting there with the woman he has come to love. Arguably, it is patterned after the Greek poet Homer's Odyssey.
No such thing in "Thirteen Moons." It is a saga made from cloth woven entirely by Frazier. The frame is the life of the hero, Will Cooper, an orphaned boy who, having been bound over or "sold" to a merchant, is sent to take charge of a trading post deep in the mountains.
In the mountains, he trades with the Cherokees and wins their trust. They adopt him. He becomes wealthy, falls into an impossible love affair that lasts a lifetime, becomes a lawyer and fights against the removal of the Cherokees from their mountain homeland, lives for a time in Washington where he deals with the political stars of the day, acquires thousands of acres of land, owns slaves, serves as a Confederate officer commanding Cherokee troops, and, after losing almost everything, settles down as an old man firing his shotgun harmlessly at passing trains that have brought tourists, who are completing the destruction of his beloved mountain lands and culture.
Any one of these themes, and many more that I have not listed, could have been the basis of a separate book. There could have been a series of Will Cooper books that could have kept Frazier busy for the rest of his life. Such an approach might have made many of Frazier's fans very happy, knowing that they could expect a new Will Cooper book from Frazier every year, rather than having to wait another five to 10 years for him to craft another saga.
But such a plan did not suit Frazier, who obviously had more in mind than stringing together a series of compelling stories.
One cannot read "Thirteen Moons" without coming to a greater understanding of the rich beauty of nature in the mountains. Nor can one finish the books without experiencing an overwhelming sadness over the loss to the environment and the damage to the mountain peoples that "progress" brought to them.
"Thirteen Moons" may or may not equal or surpass "Cold Mountain" in critical acclaim and popularity. But it is an important book, beautifully written, with a compelling message.
It is, without any doubt, a worthy successor to "Cold Mountain."
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.
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