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by Charles Frazier

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Nightwoods by Charles Frazier
© Random House
Random House, September 2011

College professor Charles Frazier wrote a book (Cold Mountain) that became an immense best-seller with more than four million copies in print and a hugely popular movie, both of which pricked a powerful cord in the reading and viewing public. His second novel, 13 Moons, received mixed reviews, often because reviewers complained that Southern mountain people did not talk as written and because Frazier is reputed to have received an eight million dollar advance, which many believe may have engendered a critical rebuff. This reviewer found the second superior to the first.

His third novel, which is superior in many ways to the first two, is set in a more contemporary time, 1963, where the characters ride in cars rather than on horses. The setting still centers on what Frazier knows best, the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, a locale he continues to mine with great effect. He sets the scene with great care and detail. An abandoned resort sits on one side of a lake, a small town on the other side. His descriptions place us there.
Luce, who is fast becoming an old maid even in her twenties, has taken in her murdered sister's two young children. As we learn in the first sentence, "Luce's new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent." Having witnessed the brutal murder, they have been struck nearly mute and have become fascinated with fire. Despite employing two central characters who are unable to verbalize effectively, usually a key tool in character development, Frazier still makes them vivid through their actions and the reactions of others, especially Luce, to them.

Their father Bud abused their mother for years, but has been acquitted of the murder and has begun a search for the children. Concurrently, Stubblefield, the absentee owner of the dilapidated resort, has received word that he needs to visit and decide what part of the property he must sell. Inevitably, he and Luce begin to attract one another, finally going to see the movie Light in the Piazza. (Ironically, Elizabeth Spencer was in the audience for Frazier's first reading on his book tour.)
Stubblefield and Luce take the children to his home in Florida and back to the mountains (Note: The mountains of North Carolina have long been known as the "Florida Mountains" for the large number of Floridians who have traditionally come north to escape the summer heat.) while Bud draws inexorably closer, becoming even more violent as he approaches. As in the best Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (and this novel is divided into three "acts"), the characters begin to move toward a central location for the culminating action. The children escape into the mountains with the pony Sally to carry them while Luce and Stubblefield work together to ensure the safety of the children.

This literary page-turner pulls the reader into a world that is reminiscent of film noir. Yet, as Frazier says, he wanted to be sure that the reader's expectations of a thriller "did not happen." He wanted the results to arise from the characters not the action. He has succeeded admirably by creating a tighter story, set in a shorter more contemporary time period, and with fewer characters. Development of memorable characters, the use of music, and the distinctive voices of the people of western North Carolina all contribute to creating a winning combination, one that is sure to garner universal praise.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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