There are several obstacles you must overcome in order to give yourself a fair reading of Charles Frazier's new novel, Thirteen Moons. There is, first of all, the phenomenal success of his first novel, Cold Mountain, an international bestseller that has sold more than 4 million copies and was made into a star-studded Hollywood film. As if that weren't enough to raise expectations, Frazier was given an $8.5 million advance for his second book.
The serious reader of fiction might wonder if anything that popular could be any good. When this upstart North Carolinian was chosen over Don DeLillo for the National Book Award in 1997, several members of New York's glitterati reacted in outrage. One of them said Frazier's writing was "like finger-painting" compared to the work of "Michelangelo."
That preposterous comparison (DeLillo as Michelangelo?) was enough to send me back to the shelf for another attempt at Cold Mountain. Like nearly everybody I know, I had tried and tried again to read the book, but just couldn't get past the stilted language. In case anybody missed his literary intentions, Frazier has his heroine, Ada, read from The Odyssey to her illiterate helpmate and savior, a sensible mountain woman named Ruby. Frazier's tale was also unrelieved by any sense of irony or humor.
Like Frazier, I was born in Asheville and reared on the stories passed down from the time my family first came to Western North Carolina from Maryland in 1766. I cherish the plain speaking that is a vital part of our heritage. If anything characterizes our great storytelling tradition, it is that nothing is ever told straight and everything has some sort of wry kick to it in the end. No human situation, however desperate or dire, is ever without a spark of humor.
The only mountain people I knew who talked like Frazier's characters were the ones who went off to the university and came home with a Ph.D. pasted on their foreheads.
A recent Newsweek article by Jeff Giles offered an excellent description of Frazier's writing: "Cold Mountain was riveting, though too meticulously written to be a page-turner in the usual sense: Reading it was a steep hike, rather than a walk in the woods." The question remains as to whether reading a novel ought to be a "steep hike."
Those who struggled through Cold Mountain will be relieved to learn that the author and his characters in the second book have loosened up and lightened up, even though the basic story is every bit as tragic as that of the wounded "soul-sick" Confederate soldier Inman.
In interviews, Frazier has explained that he got the idea for this book when he read about a man named William Holland Thomas, a white inmate in a state mental hospital in the 1880s who refused to speak anything but Cherokee. Born Feb. 5, 1805, in Haywood County, Thomas started working in a trading post in Cherokee Territory as a very young orphan boy. A man of unusual curiosity and intelligence, Thomas had little or no formal education, but he became a self-taught lawyer and major landowner in the part of North Carolina that was opened up by the Indian "removal" starting in 1838.
Living among the Cherokee, Thomas learned the language and became devoted to the people, especially to the old chief, Yonaguska, Drowning Bear. On his death bed in 1839, Yonaguska made Thomas himself a Cherokee chief. By then, of course, the once great Indian nation had been decimated by attacks from the new government of the United States, whose visions of empire included annihilation of the natives from the beginning. During the Civil War, Thomas raised a legion of Indian troops to fight for the Confederacy. After the war, he was beset by suits over the thousands of acres he had accumulated, but by all accounts, his legal finagling had helped create a homeland for his beloved Cherokees--this land would eventually become the Qualla Reservation.
It was a confused and complicated time, a chapter in our history that explains much about what curses our existence to this very day. If Thirteen Moons did nothing more, it would be a worthwhile venture for focusing attention on this tragic chapter in American history.
To Frazier's credit, the author's note reminds readers that this is a work of fiction, not factual history. His fictional "Will Cooper" is not William Holland Thomas, "although they do share some DNA." He graciously adds that "anyone seeking historical or geographical fact should look elsewhere." And, he suggests a list of books to read on the subject, including the great John Ehle's very fine Trail of Tears, which I am told has just been optioned by a major Hollywood producer.
Although Frazier's new book has some of the same flaws as Cold Mountain, it is blessedly free of others. As in the first book, he uses dashes instead of quotation marks. You have to wonder why. And, once again, in creating Will Cooper he's not satisfied to have a character with an extraordinary intelligence and native common sense, he's got to make of him an over-educated intellectual, constantly referring to the books he's read (not just The Odyssey this time, but The Aeneid as well) and the literary journals he subscribes to. I have been a lifelong crusader against the New York/Hollywood stereotype of the ignorant hillbilly, but I do think Frazier goes so far in the other direction that his characters are neither believable nor accessible.
The good news is that Thirteen Moons is a far more lively and readable book than its predecessor. The story is a nostalgic reminiscence, an old man looking back on the many failures and triumphs in his life. Will's young love affair with the exotically beautiful half-Cherokee Claire involves a healthy abundance of sex--pristinely described in the best romance fiction manner--in all sorts of beautiful settings.
At the heart of the old man's memories is "the removal," when the U.S. Army and Indian collaborators rounded up the poor people and herded them west on the Trail of Tears. Frazier's depiction of the death of the Indian named Charley is sure to create some controversy among the present-day Cherokees. He adheres to the military documents that show Charley was hunted down like an animal by his fellow Indians and shot in cold blood for killing two U.S. soldiers. The Cherokee legend of "Tsali," by contrast, depicted in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, has him sacrificing his own life so that his people can remain in their ancestral homeland in North Carolina.
The fictional Will Cooper of Thirteen Moons has a far happier ending to his life than did the real man his character was based on. The epilogue to this book leaves a delightful image I will never forget of the old curmudgeon sitting on the porch of his fine house taking pot shots at the passenger train (of which he is a major stockholder) cutting through his front yard. The real Will Thomas died May 10, 1893, in the North Carolina Hospital for the Insane at Morganton.
I salute Charles Frazier for turning his literary talents--and the attention that follows his work--to this tragic North Carolina story. I hope readers will follow his advice and read further about the fascinating historical facts behind his fiction.
Perry Deane Young has written extensively on the history and folklore of Western North Carolina. He is the author of two plays and 10 books, including a New York Times bestseller, The David Kopay Story. He can be reached at www.perrydeaneyoung.com.Thirteen Moons