The Story: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, tells two intersecting fictional narratives set during the American Civil War. The first involves Inman, a deserter from the Confederate army, who makes the long, dangerous trek back to Ada, his love interest. The other narrative examines Ada’s attempts to survive on her father’s farm without much success until the kind but rugged Ruby comes and introduces her to the hardships and joys of living off the land. Even though this novel could be classified as historical fiction, any actual history is put on the back burner in order for the characters to come forward and show what lengths they are willing to go to survive and to love.
My Take: Straight up – I don’t read historical fiction. It’s not that I hate the genre but my reading and writing interests are chiefly within the speculative realm. However, I bought Cold Mountain at a clearance price so that – and having Jude Law on the cover (at least on the edition I own) – were good enough reasons for me to bring it home.
While this novel hasn’t converted me into a historical fiction lover, it didn’t detract me either. For starters, the actual writing in Cold Mountain captures the (fictional) natural surroundings quite well. Rather than turning into purple prose, it recreates the environment and makes it a “character” our protagonists are pit against, so nature actually serves as an antagonist of sorts here. The dialogue delivery is also worth mentioning as it is atypical. Rather than use quotation marks, Frazier lets the words flow on the page, moving from description to spoken word and thought. Normally this technique annoys the heck out of me, but for some reason it works here and I wasn’t confused or lost regarding when characters were speaking.
Speaking of characters, the three chief protagonists here are interesting and possess their own set of traits and quirks, thankfully avoiding stock figure syndrome. Inman, though he’s a deserter, immediately acquired my sympathies because he was willing to go through hell and back to be with Ada. Likewise, he retains a spark of compassion towards persons in dire circumstances and is level-headed in tough situations, even when his own life is in danger. Ada is also a strong character in that she’s very human – she’s never been taught how to tend to the land, so you feel for her predicament when she can’t properly care for her father’s farm. There is a difference between a helpless character and a character who is thrust into a difficult situation and at least tries to make it work. Ada falls into this latter category and she’s easy to relate to because of that. Of course, Ruby enters to save the day (and the farm) and she stands in blatant contrast to Ada in terms of personality and look. But rather than clash or try to compete, these women genuinely compliment each other.
Story-wise, I definitely can see how this is a subtle retelling of Homer’s Odyssey as some reviewers have claimed, but you certainly don’t have to be familiar with The Odyssey to read this novel. Overall, I liked Cold Mountain, which is a stark departure from my usual fare. Despite its length, it never felt like it dragged too much though if you’re someone who likes speedy chapters and scene breaks within chapters, don’t expect much of that here. Most of the chapters are lengthy and there are rarely any breaks within chapters. But the switches among points of view, action, and surroundings are sufficient to carry it through.
Though notice I said I “liked” this book – I didn’t love it because it can be dry in spots and…well…the ending.
I will go ahead and unleash a HUGE spoiler below, and while it didn’t make me express abject hatred towards the book, it left me feeling like this…
In the next-to-last chapter, Inman is shot and dies in Ada’s arms. It didn’t make me want to heave the book into the trash bin but it did frustrate me. Profoundly. After all they go through on their own separate journeys, only for it to end like that? I don’t take issue with authors killing off characters, leads included, but I just didn’t see the sense in it for this book. The whole point of the novel was to reunite two people who were separated by distance and war. But what’s the payoff here? I wracked my brain to come up with an answer to that, but the best I could come up with was this…
Yeah, not exactly the note you want to end a book on. I’m sorry. I better stop because I could really gripe about this for a while.
Whew! Spoiler over – you can open your eyes now!
Language – Some PG to PG-13-level words and terms get used but not pervasively.
Violence – For this to be a Civil War novel, there really isn’t much in terms of bloodshed. There are some scenes of violence and peril (chiefly gun fights and fisticuffs) but these are infrequent and don’t linger over bloody, gory details.
Sexual Material – There are isolated moments but I sense the film adaptation (which I haven’t seen) sounded like it was a bit more graphic. Two characters engage in off-page relations so the act itself is left up to the reader’s imagination. There is another scene where Inman is seduced by a woman who shows him her…um…female wares, which are described but not in ultra-graphic terms. Lastly, Inman is taken in by a woman who eventually asks him to share her bed with her, but it’s to ease her own loneliness, not for sex.
Cold Mountain is a good read to snuggle up to but not great. (Great, by my definition, would be Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter-level awesomeness.) Plot-wise, this has been done before – man goes off to war, man leaves woman behind, man makes his way back to woman…you get the idea. But the setting and characters are rendered well and are developed to seem like “real” people. So for fans of historical literature who like a little more fiction with their history, this is probably a good pick though I’d recommend this more for adults than teens due to some of the content. However, the ending is a love-it or hate-it type of scenario – you’ll either think it’s brilliant or you’ll be bashing your head into the nearest wall.