In one of those weird coincidences that sometimes pop up, I checked out Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain at the library last week. For some reason, Jeremy mentioned to me that the movie Cold Mountain was on TV last weekend. This remark didn't make sense because neither of us really knows anything about the movie and neither of us really watch TV, even when we have it, which we do, here in Middlebury. In any case, we ended up not watching the movie. It was just one of those passing comments that eventually fades away.
The next day, I went to the library and they had an entire shelf in the front room featuring Civil War fiction (Gone With the Wind, Killer Angels, etc.). Cold Mountain was right at eye level, daring me to check it out, so I did.
I finished it last night, and I'm glad for the coincidence that led to me bringing the book home. Cold Mountain is a stirring, bleakly moving novel about, essentially, love and war. It took me a few hours of digestion after finishing reading it to boil it down to those two elements, but I'm pretty sure I've figured it out.
In form, it is very much one of those "journey" stories, where a main character embarks on a journey that is both physical and emotional/spiritual. Along the often winding and roundabout path, the character encounters different people and situations that further either element, or perhaps both elements, of this journey. Cold Mountain sets it up as a wounded Civil War soldier (Inman) deserting the army to return home to his kind-of sweetheart (Ada). I spoil nothing by telling you that much of the plot, and you can probably glean even more of the story just by watching the trailer for the movie (which I still have not seen).
But this book is more than just a journey story. As I said, it is about love and war. Through Inman's experiences on the road, the author shows us many different kinds of each. However, he does so while managing to avoid my least-favorite characteristic of journey stories, which goes something like, "...and then he went here, and learned this, and then he met so-and-so, and learned this," etc.
I can recommend this book to you almost wholeheartedly. Why "almost"? It's my dang morals getting in the way again. Frazier writes one of the most beautiful, muted love stories I've ever read, but at one point in the middle of the book he takes the unfortunate tactic of illustrating how great that love is by showing us a different, entirely base example of human "affection." Once that lesser character exits the story, though, the book returns to its high moral plane. (There is also a sprinkling of s-words, though the word is almost exclusively used in what must have been its 19th-century sense; that is, to mean "poo.")
There is violence as well, but in a book about the Civil War, what do you expect? In a parallel to the main love story, Frazier shows us that there are different kinds of violence, as well. What is justified? What is not? Do motives or the innocence/guilt of the victims matter when there's a war going on?
The novel uses conversational dialogue sparely, with the title of this post being one of the impressive examples of its moving simplicity. And besides all the interesting plot elements, the writing is elegant, engaging, and so evocative of place and time that I actually found the voice in my head reading in a southern accent.
If that isn't proof of a good book, I don't know what is.