Charles Frazier's first novel, Cold Mountain, has achieved legendary status. Published by a small press, it became a blockbuster, winning the National Book Award in 1997 and selling more than four million copies. Its status was assured when it became a successful movie (7 Oscar nominations) with Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger. The novel and movie celebrated Inman's love for Ada as he endured trial after trial in returning to her from a Civil War hospital. An Ambrose Bierce ending (Think "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.") gave it a realistic twist and heightened the emotional impact.
Now comes Thirteen Moons with a full-blown media campaign including three pages in Newsweek and other major national media outlets. The hype is high; the anticipation is at a peak. Fans of Cold Mountain have waited nearly ten years for Frazier's second novel. Much has been made of his leaving his initial publisher for the big money (Estimates are that his advance for the novel and the movie has exceeded $8 million.). We are supposed to find it reassuring that the original publisher will be able to latch onto the bandwagon by publishing a new paperback edition of Cold Mountain.
The wait has been worth it. The novel has not been overhyped. It is a more mature work than Cold Mountain. Despite its length, Thirteen Moons will be a bestseller and gain critically positive reviews from most quarters. Although some reviewers have complained that no Western North Carolina man could be so educated as to read The Aeneid or learn law on his own that is a specious argument for it is too easy to poke fun at those who live in the mountains. One off-kilter reviewer must have thought he was rewriting Mark Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."
The language of this "memoir" has more than touch of the romantic in it. Descriptive phrases and passages occasionally border on the florid, but even here they fit the romantic nature of an old man reflecting in tranquillity the brash impetuosity of youth. What was not right with the world could be conquered by love. The juxtaposition between the lover (Waverley, Claire, the Cherokee) and the hard-nosed business man is beautifully drawn. And, like that other Asheville, NC native Thomas Wolfe, Frazier knows that a Southern tale takes as long as necessary to tell. Tangents along the way are fine and add richness to the telling.
The movie (Rights have already been bought.) is likely to emphasize the love affair between Will Cooper and Claire, playing on the comparison with Cold Mountain. The movie will miss the point of the novel, which is not unusual, of course. Sex sells better than love of one's fellow man and love of the land. In many ways Frazier reminds me of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. Is Will's horse Waverley a nod to Scott? Is Will Cooper a nod in the latter's direction? Both authors celebrated the land and its people in fulsome poetic language. Fenimore Cooper viewed the Indians as Noble Savages whereas Frazier views the Cherokees of Western North Carolina as simply human. Cooper's Indians were all too often stereotypes; Frazier clearly sees them as fully human and living appropriately in their environment.
Descriptions of the land and Will Cooper's love of the land are fully in the Romantic vein. Nature is living, breathing and all around us. Consider this passage where Cooper is speaking of Bear's impending death:
"(T)he moons had begun to streak across the graphite bowl of sky at a harder pace in the later years. Alarming, really, how all the wheels of the world - the days and nights, the thirteen moons, the four seasons, and the great singular round of the year itself - begin spinning faster and faster the closer we get to the Nightland. We're called to it and it pulls us. And the weaker we become, the harder and faster it pulls."
Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales end with Natty Bumppo sitting in his chair facing west, the sound of encroaching civilization at his back. Will Cooper, on the other hand, sits on his porch, shotgun in hand. As the train filled with tourists comes by - a train in which he has invested heavily - he shoots birdshot in their direction, and the engineer blows one last blast on his whistle in acknowledgement of Cooper. He has always been moving forward through life looking for the next opportunity.
Thirteen Moons is a wonderful novel. In illuminating the life of Will Cooper, Charles Frazier reveals the mid-19th Century in all its glory and ugliness. Cooper's "journals" show the positives of love, friendship, and a "can do" attitude. They also show the shame of the removal of the Cherokees, slavery, and war.