Book Reviews

Book Review – Cold Mountain: A Novel by Charles Frazier – A Civil War Odyssey

Cold Mountain is based on tales handed down in author Charles Frazier’s family over the generations. Many of us have similar tales handed down that may or may not be factual, but make for an interesting tale. Frazier adds details to make this a book that’s part romance, part history, and part tragedy.

Ada is an educated woman from the city, who travels with her father, a preacher, to Cold Mountain in the upland area of North Carolina. She’s a bit of a fish out of water in the small town, having mostly lived a life of leisure where she was encouraged to read and expand her mind by her father rather than learn how to do things for herself. Inman is a local man who falls for Ada. They are soon separated by the Civil War.

As things get worse and worse for Ada, she must learn to survive. She takes in Ruby, a local ne’er-do-well who teaches her how to obtain her own food, including farming and hunting. In turn, Ada tries to educate Ruby. Inman, meanwhile, is becoming more and more disillusioned as the war goes on, and eventually, after he is badly injured, deserts to make his way back to Ada. His journey is similar to The Odyssey, where Odysseus journeys to his love Penelope following the Trojan War.

The story sounds so simple, but it isn’t. The Civil War changes things for people who did not even own slaves. Ada’s father, Monroe, was indulgent and loving but yet did her a disservice when it came to preparing her for what the world was like. Everything seemed to come easy for Ada, who never had to worry before about where her next meal was coming from until it wasn’t anymore. The bond that forms between Ada and Ruby is interesting as the two break down the barriers and learn to trust each other. It would seem Ada needs Ruby more than Ruby needs her, but Ada does manage to lift Ruby up throughout the book as well.

Inman doesn’t know what he’s returning to, only that Ada has become his vision for survival. He is picturing the girl in the beautiful dresses he left behind. She has changed due to the war, and so has he, and it’s not certain that the feelings will still be there. As a deserter, he also has to worry about being captured and sent back to the Confederate Army, or executed. His journey is perilous, and he knows there is a great deal of risk, but he is just done with it all and wants to return home. He reasons that a horse would require too much care and attract too much notice, but I think he also felt that he needed to walk. It was going to be a cathartic journey after what he had experienced over the four years he was a soldier. He meets people along the way as well. They are interesting characters some of who who show up later on as well.

I didn’t realize that there was an “understanding” between Inman and Ada in terms of a relationship until I was fairly far into the book. It seems at first that Inman is holding Ada up as an ideal; he’s focusing on her because he needs her as a talisman to motivate him to survive. At times, Ada’s longing for him seems to be primarily practical. She could use a man’s help with the farm and trying to survive. It was not until close to the end that I realized there was more to their relationship before he left for the war. This is the style of the book. The characters are all well fleshed out, but it takes time to get there.

I really enjoyed Cold Mountain. It showed the effects of a war on people who were caught up in it. They had no slaves, so it wasn’t as if either of them had anything to gain if the Confederacy prevailed. It could really have been almost any war that upended the lives of everyday people. Most wars seem to be about the rich convincing the poor to fight for what the rich want to see, rather than it affecting everyday people as something they want to fight for. This novel demonstrates that very well.

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